Deputies slow to react to judge's distress call

City police intervene in court tussle amid sheriff's office delay

July 15, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When a man violently resisted being taken to prison, Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell did what every city judge is trained to do: He pushed the panic button on his bench to call for sheriff's deputies.

But no one came.

So, correctional officers in the courtroom with shackled prisoners had to abandon their charges to try and restrain the defendant. As the man struggled - screaming "Just shoot me in the head!" - police officers who were in the court to testify rushed to help bring the defendant under control. Out in the hallway, city police officers who were on a break from their trial on brutality allegations overheard the goings-on and raced in.

In addition to hitting the panic button, Mitchell said, he ordered his clerk to telephone the sheriff's office for help twice, but no one answered. Finally, he said, the clerk went to a nearby courtroom and asked a deputy there to radio for help, as the defendant continued to fight officers on the floor.

A squad of sheriff's deputies, who are responsible for courthouse security, arrived 12 minutes after the outburst began, he said.

"They blew it," Mitchell said.

Sheriff's office officials blame the breakdown on staff shortages because of an "unusual" number of recent retirements that left them unable to staff the room where the panic button rings.

Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said she will meet with Sheriff John W. Anderson next week to discuss the Thursday morning incident.

"This is a very serious breach of security," Heller said yesterday.

Mitchell agreed. "Someone could have been seriously hurt, and their fundamental job is courthouse security," he said. "They are supposed to be there pretty darn quickly. They should at least answer the phones. How difficult can that be?"

Capt. Marshall T. Goodwin, spokesman for Anderson's office, said the office is short-staffed because of a wave of retirements July 1. Fourteen deputies in the 130-employee office left, he said.

As a result, no one was stationed in the room where the panic button rings, he said. One deputy was assigned to the courtroom, but he was fighting with the defendant so he could not radio for aid.

"We're taking every measure to correct the problems that existed [Thursday]," Goodwin said. "The problem was due to a shortage [of personnel]. We have had a large, unusual, number of retirements."

Goodwin said four deputies came to the courtroom in about six minutes.

The melee began about 10:30 a.m., after Mitchell sentenced the defendant - Derrick C. Owens, 32, of the 1300 block of W. North Ave. - to six months in jail for assaulting his girlfriend.

The man refused to allow the sheriff's deputy assigned to the court to handcuff him. Mitchell said the man began yelling, "You don't understand! I am not going to jail!"

The deputy put the man face-down over a table and tried try to pull the man's arms behind his back. The man resisted, pushing the table across the courtroom. Two jail officers leapt to the deputy's aid, and all four rolled off the table onto the floor, Mitchell said.

The police officers and additional correctional officers then rushed to the court, finally restraining the man with the leg irons taken off one of the other prisoners in the courtroom, the judge said. In the process, some of the officers were injured, he said.

Five of the police officers were being sued in a different courtroom on brutality allegations. The officers, who were cleared of all allegations yesterday, were on a break when they heard the screams and noise from inside Mitchell's courtroom, said their lawyer, Duane Verderaime.

"They came back to [their trial] about 15 minutes later all sweaty. I said, `What happened?'" Verderaime said.

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