Baltimore keeps its eyes open Courthouses, federal office buildings watched TERROR STRIKES THE HEARTLAND

April 20, 1995|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer Staff writers Jay Apperson and John B. O'Donnell contributed to this article.

At the U.S. District Courthouse in Baltimore, the judges closed an underground walkway and blocked the horseshoe drive leading to the front doors.

At the Fallon federal office building across the street, there was "heightened" security, although the General Services Administration would not give specifics.

And a late-afternoon bomb scare emptied the Clarence Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, possibly a copycat threat similar to others received in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., following the deadly bombing in Oklahoma City.

"It's been a pretty spooky day for everybody," said Clerk of Court Joseph A. Haas after meeting with the federal judges. Two years ago, engineers criticized security at the federal courthouse and said it was vulnerable to a potential bombing. Mostly, they argued for heavy barricades in front of the building.

Yesterday the judges took a few extra steps. Better security already was on the agenda for a meeting on exterior changes to the courthouse scheduled for this summer.

"I think there will be an extended discussion about ways to have the courthouse made more secure," Mr. Haas said. "This is a very graphic reminder that these things can happen."

U.S. Marshal Scott A. Sewell, who is responsible for security at the courthouse, said he beefed up patrols outside the building.

Engineers two years ago suggested heavy barriers on the plaza leading to the courthouse front doors, and construction of a pop-up barrier to block intruders to the underground parking garage. But the GSA ignored the recommendations in approving a $13 million renovation project for the courthouse.

Marshal Sewell said the security measures engineers urged the GSA to take were those he had urged for four years.

Even so, he believes security at the courthouse is sufficient. Guards patrol the building and grounds 24 hours a day, as in most urban federal courthouses. And all visitors must walk through a metal detector when they enter the building. Bags and briefcases are X-rayed.

"What next -- anti-aircraft guns on the roof?" said Marshal Sewell. "How far are you going to go with security? You have to balance it with public access and expense."

Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said the judges hope security will now be a higher priority for Congress: "It's not been a lack of attention; it's a lack of funding."

John Thompson, regional spokesman for the General Services Administration, said it was not immediately clear why the recommended security changes of two years ago were ignored.

Yesterday's bombing did not prompt the agency to beef up its security staff, he said.

The Social Security Administration took added security measures at its Woodlawn headquarters, where 10,000 people work, and other Baltimore area offices.

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