Guard shortage looms at 2 courthouses

January 27, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Staff Writer

Maryland's U.S. marshal is urging federal judges to postpone opening the $35 million federal courthouse in Greenbelt, saying inadequate security plans will pose a risk to judges, prosecutors and others.

Unless more money is appropriated for security, said U.S. Marshal Scott A. Sewell, some guards will be moved from the Garmatz federal courthouse in Baltimore -- making it one of the few urban courthouses without 24-hour security.

A federal hiring freeze imposed more than a year ago prohibits adding deputy marshals and court security officers for the Greenbelt building, which will be a Southern Division satellite to the Baltimore courthouse. Marshal Sewell said he has no choice but to stretch his staff to cover the Greenbelt courthouse, expected to open in July.

"I think it means a security threat to the judiciary in both buildings," he said. "I can't see compromising the security of the judges just to get something open." The judges are appealing to various agencies and officials in Washington for more security, said Chief U.S. District Judge Walter E. Black Jr. He said it's too early to speculate about remedies if they come back empty-handed.

"A big building in a metropolitan area without security is a problem," he said. "But it's still roughly six months away. We're not at the point yet where our predictions are that dire."

"There is a problem," said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Rep. Steny Hoyer, a 5th District Democrat. "We are working on the problem."

Like the Garmatz courthouse, the Greenbelt facility will be equipped with a walk-through metal detector and an X-ray machine to inspect incoming packages, purses and briefcases. All entrances will have closed-circuit monitors.

But, unless more security staff can be hired, guards will be siphoned from the Baltimore courthouse. The building probably will revert to a 12-hour operation, relying on electronic security the rest of the time, Marshal Sewell said. A skeleton staff now works nights and weekends.

The presence of officers at trials, protecting jurors and monitoring the nine floors of the courthouse on Lombard Street is likely to be curtailed, too, he said. In the past, as many as a dozen officers have been stationed in a courtroom for large trials, such as prosecutions of violent drug gangs.

Maryland's federal courts are among several without adequate funds for security, according to an official with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which manages the federal judiciary.

The agency last year asked Congress for $106 million for court security nationwide, but was allocated only $86 million, said spokesman David A. Sellers. A report by the agency last September said the funding shortfall means that about 41 new or satellite courts will be unable to hire court security officers.

How that could affect Maryland's federal courts, Mr. Sellers would not say. "I don't think we want to say that a particular courthouse is in a situation that would invite people to question its security."

Marshal Sewell wants to create five new positions and continue 24-hour security, at a cost of $655,000. A cheaper plan -- eight new positions with 12-hour security each day -- is the minimum needed for adequate security and would cost $480,000 a year, he said.

Marshal Sewell, who oversees a staff of 69 deputy marshals and court security officers in Baltimore, said his staff confiscates at least one weapon a week from persons entering the building. Threatening correspondence to a judge or prosecutor arrives about once a month.

In early January, security officers took a knife with a 7-inch blade from a claims adjuster on his way to a conference with a judge. And, recently, officers seized a loaded, .22-caliber revolver from a 16-year-old girl.

"We've never had anyone injured, but we've had disorderly people in the courtroom who had to be removed," Mr. Sewell said. That has happened about a dozen times in his four years as U.S. marshal, he said.

U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow, who is among three judges slated to move to the Greenbelt courthouse, said, "The judges and staff often work after 7 p.m. and on weekends. It's clear that, if we don't get increased staffing, something is going to have to go."

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