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Opinion allows Collin DA to fund weapons for courthouse security team
Sunday, January 24, 2010
By ED HOUSEWRIGHT / The Dallas Morning News
Collin County District Attorney John Roach will get his gear.
The county commissioners have given up their effort to stop Roach from spending $25,000 on high-powered rifles, shotguns, helmets and shields to outfit a one-of-a-kind courthouse security team.
The commissioners, who approve the district attorney's overall budget, sought a legal opinion but found that Roach can use asset forfeiture funds for the purchase.
"It's very clear," Commissioner Matt Shaheen said.
Earlier this month, he and other Commissioners Court members questioned the legality and necessity of having two dozen DA investigators don riot gear to respond to a courthouse shooting.
They still don't like the idea.
Commissioners say the McKinney Police Department, the Collin County sheriff's office, the Homeland Security Department and bailiffs provide plenty of firepower to handle an emergency.
"Here's my concern: Who's in charge?" Commissioner Jerry Hoagland said. "If a shooter does show up in a courtroom, who's going to do what?"
Roach, who is retiring at the end of the year, said he never doubted he had the authority to buy the SWAT-type equipment.
"I wouldn't have been asking for something I couldn't do," he said.
Roach formed the emergency response team after taking office in 2003. It conducts monthly training after hours at the courthouse but has never been called into action.
The investigators, who are all certified to carry a gun, could respond to a shooting quicker than other law enforcement officers, Roach said. But they would take a secondary role once police, sheriff's deputies or others arrived, he said.
"We have 24 police officers in this courthouse who work for the district attorney's office," Roach said. "They're not going to stand there with their thumbs in their ears if something goes down."
He's a little rankled that commissioners and others have referred to the security force as a SWAT team. SWAT officers break down doors to make arrests. The emergency response team is defensive in nature, Roach said.
"The mission is entirely different," he said.
In 2005, an East Texas courthouse shooting left two people dead. This month, a gunman opened fire in a Las Vegas courthouse, killing one person and injuring another.
"Just because it hasn't happened here doesn't mean it won't," said Chad Smith, deputy chief investigator for the Collin County district attorney's office.
Smith took part in a training exercise Thursday night in which investigators wore bulletproof vests, helmets and black windbreakers with "District Attorney Police" on the back. They carried pistols that shoot plastic pellets and responded to staged courtroom emergency.
In it, a sexual assault defendant pulls a gun after being sentenced to 50 years in prison.
"I'm in charge of the courtroom now," the actor screams.
He then fatally shoots the bailiff and two jury members as others scream.
Four investigators, crouching and pointing their guns, barge into the courtroom. They immediately shoot and kill the defendant, who collapses onto the floor.
"All clear," an investigator yells to end the crisis.
Smith stood and addressed the team members.
"Good job, everybody," he said.
The mandatory training will continue next month. Roach says it may one day save lives.
"The likelihood of these things occurring may be remote, but it's ridiculous not to plan," he said.
Also see Collin County Observer article, Armed & Dangerous: DA wants to SWAT 'em
In military terms, what the DA is trying to do is called "mission creep", as the role of the Criminal district Attorney is to prosecute criminals, not defend the courthouse.
I hope the next Collin County District Attorney takes swift action to disband or limit these "courthouse commando" teams. Listening to DA Chief Investigator Novaline Varner's testimony before the commissioners court makes it clear that the teams lack clear command and authority guidelines.
For example Varner told the court that there is no Memorandum of Understanding between the various police agencies defining the roles and responsibilities of the DA, the Sheriff and the McKinney police in the event of a courthouse emergency. There is no standard operating procedure written that defines the role of or the authority of the one law enforcement officer presently charged with the security of the courtroom - the bailiff.
Varner's response to the questions on the procedures for command and authority shed some light on the nature of the courthouse commando teams, "We are working on an SOP, so everybody will know what they're doing. but all of that takes time. While we're wasting time getting through the red tape, we're still training. I don't want us to come across that we're some kind of "Three Stooges" type [operation]."
After her testimony, Commissioner Jerry Hoagland told the court, "My concern is, we have the sheriffs department, we have the McKinney police, we have homeland security we got the bailiff. We have all these different parties. And I'm not sure this is a function of the DAs office. I'm not saying that maybe we don't need more security, maybe we do. But I'm not sure that is a proper function of a District Attorneys Office."
Commissioner Joe Jaynes stated, "I really don't believe we need another police force, whether its called a SWAT or Emergency Response. In a lot of ways that could just make the situation even more dangerous."
In discussion over another agenda item, it was revealed that the DA investigators lacked radio equipment to communicate with Sheriff's deputies in the event of an emergency.
Ms. Varner and the DAs office often refer to the 2005 Smith County courthouse shooting as an example of the need for tighter security here in Collin County. But in the Smith County incident, the shooter was outside the courthouse, and he fired on citizens who were on the courthouse steps. In both the Smith County shooting and the Las Vegas shooting, the suspect was killed far from the courthouse after a chase by law enforcement. It is unclear from the DAs proposal exactly where the limits will be set for John Roach's courthouse commandos. Will they be authorized to respond to shooters outside in the parking lots? Across the street at the Sheriff's Office? At Wal Mart across from the University Dr. courthouse? Anywhere?
Where does the mission creep end?
So far, the ONLY casualty from violence at the Bloomfield Rd courthouse has been by friendly fire. During one of the DA's commando training exercises, District Judge John Roach, Jr. was accidentally shot in the face with a blank. He was shot by a volunteer civilian, who had no business with a real gun, but was given the gun for role play by law enforcement personnel who should have known better. But they don't want to be known as some kind of "Three Stooges" operation.
Courthouse observers and law enforcement personnel I have talked with believe the real key to security at the courthouse is in excluding weapons, not in escalating the levels of violence. They believe that putting more commissioned sheriff's deputies at the entrances and in the hallways, and putting them in charge of courthouse security would both exclude the likeliness of a bad guy being able to start a shooting incident and speed up the reaction time in the case of an incident.
Presently, the task of screening visitors and the responsibility for courthouse security is assigned to the Homeland Security Department. Homeland Security is not a police agency, and was given the job because using civilian guards is cheaper than hiring real commissioned deputies.
The real issue of courthouse security is budget. The Commissioners Court has elected to run courthouse security "on the cheap". Their decision to hire unarmed, civilian guards creates a security vacuum that the DA is trying to fill with his erstwhile "courthouse commandos". DA Roach's decision is a mistake. The county's attempts to Wal Mart the security of the courts is the cause.
The solution is obvious.
That said, I believe it is a foolish use of funds, I want real law enforcement officers protecting me in the courthouse, and frankly, spending the funds on DA office furniture is a much better use of these funds than equipping these investigators to be commandos.
This is not their job and they are not qualified to do this. Military weapons can bring a lot of damage very quickly.
And by the way, this is our money, not his.
But they don't want to look like a "Three Stooges" operation.
Several sources I trust contest your version of the incident. I hate to be put in a position where I can not completely put my faith in the veracity of a law enforcement officer, but I find myself there now.
Unfortunately, I've lost confidence in your ability to shoot straight with the whole truth. I hope that time proves me wrong, and if it does I'll be the first to apologize, but meanwhile "I'll call them as I see them".
As far as name calling goes, you first mentioned The Three Stooges, I simply enjoy the comparison.
Put it in the state general fund.
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