Dukes County courthouse security is no joke
A man walks into a courthouse carrying a loaded .45 caliber gun with a bullet in the firing chamber. A court officer on daily patrol finds a knife hidden in bushes on courthouse grounds.
Although these scenarios read like a script from a television show set in a big city off-Island, both incidents occurred at the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown.
Incidents such as these are what led Liza Williamson, Edgartown District Court clerk-magistrate, to push for a walk-through metal detector, x-ray machine, and beefed-up security at the courthouse entrance. "We don't need to panic, but I do think we need to deal with the reality of the situation here," she said in an interview a few weeks ago. "And I think it would not only be negligent but reckless to disregard what's going on. I think we're lucky nothing bad has happened," she said.
Liza Williamson, clerk-magistrate, stands next to the metal detector and x-ray machine that greet visitors to the Dukes County Courthouse. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The installation of the metal detector and x-ray machine in January elicited a few snide comments and jokes from some, Ms. Williamson said, but most attorneys and courthouse employees were supportive of the protective measures. "Some people questioned the need for security here.," she said. "They have no idea. People think the Vineyard is the way it was 20 years ago. I was here 20 years ago, and it's not. I'm not saying it doesn't have all of the wonderful qualities left, but we're dealing with what people off-Island have been dealing with over the last 20 years. We're not isolated - if anything, being so uniquely geographically located, we face more challenges."
Ms. Wiliamson is very familiar with the realities of the justice system. A former assistant district attorney, she worked on a homicide response team in Suffolk County, which included prosecuting gang-related crimes. Gov. Mitt Romney appointed her to be clerk-magistrate in February 2004 following the retirement of long-time clerk-magistrate Thomas Teller.
Ms. Williamson soon became increasingly alarmed about gaps in courthouse security and the safety of her staff. The narrow confines of the century-old building provide little physical separation between visitors and court offices located by the entrance corridor.
"I feel as the clerk magistrate, it is my duty to protect everyone in the courthouse," Ms. Williamson said. "If you're an employee here, you should have a good work environment, not be in fear for your safety."
The Dukes County Courthouse is a busy, crowded place. The building houses Edgartown District Court, Dukes County Superior Court, family and probate court, juvenile court and the registry of deeds office. In fiscal year 2005, according to Ms. Williamson, the Edgartown District Court had approximately 1,400 criminal complaints filed, which put it on a par with district courts in South Boston, Brighton, Natick, Brookline, Charlestown, and Newton. "Besides Nantucket, we were the only court that did not have security," Ms. Williamson said.
On several occasions, she and the head administrative assistant attempted to verbally stop scuffles between people in the hallway in the absence of any security officers, court officers or law enforcement personnel. After one incident, a man threatened to go home and get a gun. Ms. Williamson notified the Edgartown Police Department, and officers went to his home where they confiscated three handguns from him.
At that time there were no full-time court officers or security guards. Several knives had been taken from individuals entering the courtroom for criminal sessions. A few people had tried to check guns in at the clerk's office window. With no lock-box available, the only place to store weapons was the walk-in safe in the clerk's office.
When a fully loaded .45 caliber handgun was confiscated from a man on his way to the courtroom a few months ago, Ms. Williamson realized she had no place to safely store it. She called the Edgartown Police Department and an officer provided her with a trigger lock that she keeps in her desk drawer.
After eight months on the job, one incident proved a turning point for Ms. Williamson. As one of her duties, she presides over civil motor vehicle infraction appeals, including speeding tickets and traffic violations. A man found responsible on a speeding ticket charged into her office and began yelling. When a police officer in the hallway looked in, he noticed the man was carrying a knife with a 10-inch blade and quickly confiscated it.
After that incident, Ms. Williamson asked the court officers to use metal detecting wands on everyone entering the courtroom. She also wrote a letter outlining her concerns to the Hon. Robert A. Mulligan, Chief Justice for Administration and Management, and spoke with the Trial Court Security office about getting a walk-through metal detector and x-ray machine at the courthouse entrance. In addition, she requested full-time security personnel to man it and at least two or three full-time court officers supplemented when necessary by per diem officers.
Because the state rents the courthouse building from Dukes County, Ms. Williamson attended a meeting of the county commissioners and described her plans. Dianne Powers, Register of Deeds, shared her concerns, as well.
The county commissioners told Ms. Williamson to seek whatever security measures Trial Court Security deemed appropriate. "The county said, do whatever you want, as long as we don't have to pay for it, which I completely understand," Ms. Williamson said with a laugh.
In addition to getting a metal detector, she was authorized to hire a full-time court officer, Nathan Durawa. She also is waiting for permission to hire more full-time court officers and full-time front door security personnel to man the metal detector and x-ray machine all of the time.
"It took a lot to get to where we are, and my hope is that by the time we're in full swing this summer, we'll be fully staffed," Ms. Williamson said. "As things get more squared away, we'll be able to cover some of the finer details, such as back door access. There is a handicap ramp, and I'm very aware that we need to be sure we accommodate people who come in wheelchairs as well as make the back door secure."
Officer Durawa works with five per diem officers to handle four courts. Only two are available five days a week, which makes adequate staffing a challenge. Ideally, he said, he would need eight court officers.
"We've had guns and knives brought into the courthouse every day," Officer Durawa said. Knives are especially plentiful, he explained, because with such a large number of tradesmen on the Island, "practically everyone carries a knife."
Aside from security, Ms. Williamson thinks the physical appearance of the courthouse reflects the justice system. Improving the condition of the building is an ongoing concern.
"People are going to perceive our justice system by what they see here. The courthouse is supposed to be the symbol of justice."
The physical state of the courthouse proved to be a challenge unto itself. Ms. Williamson arrived to find an office decorated with rotting blinds and peeling paint. The county did pay for some paint for a few of the offices, she said, which made a big improvement.
Because of space limitations, an additional makeshift hearing room was created in the basement. Under low ceilings in the damp, dingy environment, the accused sit in folding chairs right next to the public, and there is only one exit.
However, Officer Durawa and Ms. Williamson agreed the room is much better since the carpet was removed after raw sewage seeped in.
Taking a philosophical approach, Ms. Williamson said, "You do what needs to be done and you make it work."