BAR HARBOR – Run, duck and cover.
Michael A. Coty, the director of court security, told prosecutors Monday that’s the best advice he can give them about how to react if someone brandishes a weapon in a courtroom.
Coty’s statement evoked laughter from the more than 50 members of the Maine Prosecutors Association in Bar Harbor this week for their annual conference – but he wasn’t joking.
“The primary focus of the deputy marshal or sheriff’s deputy,” he said, “is on the judge. The secondary focus is on the prosecutors.”
Coty’s presentation, “The Changing Faces of Security in the Courtroom,” focused on how and why the emphasis on courtroom safety has changed over the past few years, even though Maine has not had a serious violent incident in any of its 40 courthouses.
Up until about five years ago, the 16 county sheriff’s offices provided security for courtrooms in the state’s 16 counties, Coty said.
The state contracted with the sheriff’s departments to provide that security, but as the state tightened its belt, the judicial system hired courtroom security officers through Manpower, an employment agency.
“We were having trouble getting qualified individuals because court officers must be law enforcement officers,” he said. “We needed state employees and we couldn’t get them through Manpower for $11 an hour and no benefits. … We also needed to put forward an image [to the public] that doesn’t portray them as mall cops.”
That’s why court officers employed by the judicial branch are called State Judicial Marshals. Those marshals work in 91/2 counties, with the split coming in Franklin County, where marshals provide security in superior court and sheriff’s deputies provide it in district court, Coty said Monday.
Others counties in northern and eastern Maine where security is provided by marshals include Aroostook, Hancock and Waldo counties. Local sheriff’s provide security in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington and Somerset counties.
Coty said the lack of respect for authority and the escalation of violence in society, along with the fact that the courtroom is a symbol of justice, have increased the likelihood of violence in courtrooms.
“People lash out at the symbols these day,” he said. “The justice system is a target because it is a symbol.”
Most of the courtrooms in Maine were built decades ago, and securing them is challenging, according to Coty. New courthouses, including the recently completed district court in Rockland and the proposed Penobscot County Judicial Center, are designed with security in mind.
The new courthouse in Bangor will include three separate secure areas – judicial, public and prisoner – that will allow the three entities to come together only in the courtrooms. Coty said that security cameras and a control room are part of the design.
Entry screening, one of the best ways to keep weapons and other prohibited items out of courtrooms, still is only possible on 5 percent of the days that courts operate, he told prosecutors.
Coty estimated it would take between $3.5 million and $4 million to fund entry screeners at all 40 courthouses in the state every day they are open.
Despite the security challenges facing the judicial system, Coty said he is hopeful that the slow but steady implementation of more security measures backed by Gov. John Baldacci at the urging of Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley would be enough to keep a violent tragedy from playing out in Maine’s courtrooms as it has in others around the nation.
R. Christopher Almy, district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, was not as optimistic.
“Until something really serious happens, the public doesn’t really pay attention or care,” Almy said Monday after Coty’s presentation. “I think it may take something serious for us to get some real security in the courtrooms.”