Arlington Officer Wages Campaign to Improve Security in Courtrooms

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

When a federal judge's husband and mother were slain in their Chicago home, Lt. Jimmie H. Barrett of the Arlington County Sheriff's Office took it personally -- and it transformed him professionally.

"It was a catalyst for me," said Barrett, who has supervised security at the Arlington courthouse for nearly a decade. "Our court system is central to the foundation of our democracy. If people are attacking judges and the courts, they are really attacking our government and our way of life."

The attack on Judge Joan H. Lefkow's family in 2005 -- followed by a rampage 11 days later by an Atlanta rape suspect, who killed a judge, a court stenographer and a deputy -- helped launch Barrett on a mission to improve court security and training for court personnel nationwide.

He joined a judicial security committee formed by Virginia's Supreme Court chief justice and took an intensive class in "protective investigations" taught by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Next week, Barrett will share what he has learned in literary form. He is self-publishing a 150-page book, "Protecting Court: A Practitioner's Guide to Court Security," filled with security tips for lawyers, judges and court security officers.

"It's not going to be a bestseller," joked Barrett, 42, who said he felt compelled to spend the past 2 1/2 years writing during his time off because "there is a vacuum of knowledge on threat assessments and court security training. Very few books published on the subject. With the training I've received over the years, I thought, 'Why don't I put this into a format that others can use as a reference?' "

Barrett, who said his research has been "tremendously helpful" in his day job of protecting the courthouse, added: "It's hard to write a book. I'm not a writer. I'm a deputy sheriff who is providing court security."

His book will arrive at a time of escalating concern about court security in the Washington region and nationwide. Threats and other harassing communications against federal court personnel have more than doubled in the past six years, from 592 to 1,278, according to U.S. marshals.

Federal officials attribute the trend to disgruntled defendants, terrorism and gang cases that bring more violent offenders into federal courts, frustration over the economic crisis and the rise of the "sovereign citizen" movement -- a loose collection of tax protesters, white supremacists and others who don't respect federal authority.

Although attacks on federal court personnel have not increased, the explosion of threats and their increasingly vitriolic nature have prompted a growing law enforcement crackdown. The Marshals Service, which protects federal judges and prosecutors, says several hundred of them require 24-hour guards for days, weeks or months, depending on the case.

And judges are not just relying on their protectors: Many are altering their routes to work, installing security systems at home, shielding their addresses by paying bills at the courthouse or refraining from registering to vote. Some even pack weapons on the bench.

The problem has become so pronounced that the Marshals Service recently opened a high-tech "threat management" center in Crystal City, where a staff of about 25 marshals and analysts monitor a 24-hour number for reporting threats, use mapping software to track those being threatened and tap into a classified database linked to the FBI and CIA.

At the Arlington courthouse -- which houses juvenile, domestic relations, general district and circuit courts, along with the offices of the county police, sheriff and commonwealth's attorney -- Barrett is one of numerous officials who say they are seeing the same trend across the country.

Arlington sheriff's deputies investigate 10 to 12 threats each year, usually against judges, Barrett said. The threats usually come from litigants or their families, often in volatile civil cases such as divorce proceedings. The threats typically arrive through letters or e-mails.

"You can go months with nothing, and all of a sudden it seems like the world is falling apart," said Barrett, who would not provide details about recent cases because none have resulted in criminal charges.

He said that investigators examine each incident, trying to assess: "Is this person really capable of carrying out the threat? Does he have the means or ability? If they're writing a letter and they're locked down in prison for the rest of their life, I'm not too concerned. But if the person in prison is a gang leader with contacts on the outside, then I'm concerned."

Barrett, who posts one or two uniformed deputies in Arlington courtrooms, has three primary tips for court security officers about how to prevent attacks: Know your courthouse, gain support from judges to implement security measures and educate yourself about threats.

"We have to have a safe courthouse," he said. "It's the one place where people can go, and regardless of your stature, you're equal before the law. If people don't feel safe there, what do we have left?"

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