CRIME CITY

Open Season

Even during the Dunn trial, courthouse security is weak

Posted

There's nothing like a marquee murder trial to bring angry litigants, gang hitters, attention-seekers and nut jobs out of the moonshine and into the sunlight. Security was sure to be tight at the Michael Dunn murder trial last week. So, disguised as a doddery senior citizen, I checked it out. I limped through the metal detectors, stumbled upstairs and down, and stuck my nose into offices, jury rooms, courtrooms and bathrooms.

I placed suspicious packages in trash cans and news boxes, carried metal through the magnetometers unchallenged and spent an hour in an ideal sniper hide, ranging targets and pondering how many people a bad guy could kill with a Walmart rifle with a not-so-straight barrel.

I hobbled around the building several times, pushed doors and poked into the unfenced power boxes near Clay Street to figure out how to pop the brass JEA locks, open the doors and blow the juice. Inside, for an hour, I cased the metal detectors from a nearby bench, stared intently at X-ray screens, scrutinized pat-downs and wand scans, and made obvious notes with a bright red pen in a huge black-and-orange folio.

Nobody said squat. To vanish from official scrutiny, it is only necessary to blink frequently and mutter at odd intervals, "What's the frequency, Kenneth?"

Several months ago, Folio Weekly published a cover story, "Soft Target" [Sept. 11, 2013], in which I concluded that the $112 million a year the city spends on courthouse security is largely wasted, that security fails to meet the minimum standards set by the National Center for State Courts, and that a non-clever killer could easily place a bomb outside the building or carry a handgun inside to blast whichever juror, witness, attorney or judge had annoyed him.

So, with extra guys laid on for the Dunn trial, was security any better?

Nope. Let's review:

1. Metal detectors. I carry about eight ounces of metal in an artificial knee and always set off the detectors. Not once in the dozens of times I've passed security has any employee ever located the metal with a wand. Mostly they assume the beep was caused by a belt buckle. I did get one ankle squeeze.

Yippee.

Many on the staff, employed by a private contractor, are old and obese, physically incapable of bending at the waist and doing a slow, four-sided wand check. This is not a complex skill. You could teach it to a kid in 10 minutes — or a border collie in five.

2. Patrols. The cops were conducting perimeter patrols. Alas, these were not done on foot, which forces officers to pay attention. Instead, the patrols buzzed dreamily by in comfy all-terrain vehicles while I figured out how many ball bearings would be required to generate a maniac-pleasing fireball from unsecured power junctions.

Interior patrols of hallways, bathrooms, utility and storage rooms were not happening. Nobody carried a stick to poke into trash cans to check for nasty surprises. For the most part, the 100 or so armed bailiffs and police leaned on walls, dozed in snug chairs, chatted, texted, Web-surfed and ogled.

The cops had brought on extra staff but had not, apparently, assigned staff members any specific duties. If officers are not patrolling, poking, peering and questioning, they're just scarecrows.

3. Bomb deterrence. City Hall has anti-blast bollards, but the courthouse does not. And the cops didn't move the news boxes and didn't replace pot-metal trash cans with bomb-resistant containers, as recommended by national standards. Instead, they added more cans.

4. Witness protection. There was no security in the jury and witness areas. In my neighborhood, after the Fuller Lane shootings in 2012, the hitters went door to door, reminding people what would happen if they showed at court (bang, bang to the head, small caliber).

5. Sniper hides. Four cops were assigned to the parking garage, but they stood around on the ground floor yakking instead of patrolling. I stood over their heads planning kill shots.

Recommendations? Cancel the security vendor contract: G4S Security is an international company, but its training and supervision of the local staff who man our metal detectors are FUBAR. And remove the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office from courthouse security supervision. Security and police work are different. The city should manage its own security, like the federal government does, or contract out the entire operation to a private security company.

To walk among the throngs at the Dunn circus outside the courthouse was to be reminded that the violent, the foolish and the unhinged are only a step away,

In Crime City.

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