Focus on Reno

An attack on judge by a sniper could have been prevented by secure window dressing

MAJOR media outlets focused on Reno, Nev., on June 12, when family court judge Chuck Weller, 53, was critically wounded by a single, sniper bullet from the third story of a parking garage more than 300 feet away from his courthouse office. Allegedly, a disgruntled man in a case that Weller had overseen, fired the bullet that passed through a large, insulated window unit.

Courthouse shootings are nothing new. Last spring, there was an escape and shooting spree in an Atlanta courtroom and a recent lockdown of a Chicago courthouse.

The question remains: what could have been done in Reno and what else can communities do to protect judges and courthouses? Most importantly, courthouses need windows strong enough to stop speeding bullets.

As a result, city, state and federal officials have been clamoring to upgrade security. Ironically, only last year, a California-based security consultant had recommended improvements at the Reno courthouse, including measures, that would have stopped the bullet. Unfortunately, no steps were taken to appropriate money and implement the suggestions.

The question remains: what could have been done in Reno and what else can communities do to protect judges and courthouses? Most importantly, courthouses need windows strong enough to stop speeding bullets. No one can tell the exact specifications of the bullet and gun the alleged sniper used in Reno because the bullet disintegrated on impact. However, taking into account the distance that the bullet traveled, experts believe the alleged shooter most likely used a rifle.

Protecting the Inside and Out
As other courthouse shootings demonstrate, protection systems need to prevent attacks from inside and outside the building. Ideally, security experts recommend a ringed system of defense that encompasses a series of barriers built from the outside, in. These defense rings are capable of stopping the approach of oncoming attackers while placing them in plain view.

The outer ring is called the hardline. It is the outer shell of the structure itself. Concrete, steel, brick, aluminum and clear, transparent armor are the building blocks of this hardline shell.

Against an attack from outside, a building's most vulnerable points are its windows and doors. Currently, it is possible to install window and door units that are certified to stop a NATO 7.62 millimeter bullet. The units are strong enough to have stopped the bullet aimed at Judge Weller.

It is possible to integrate even more protection. For example, it is economically feasible to construct an outer hardline that can resist penetration from a tool-wielding group of attackers.

Annapolis, Md.-based Compudyne Corps. Norshield Division in Montgomery, Ala., produces doors and windows with that level of protection. The doors and windows have been tested to resist a 60-minute attack. Nearly 75 percent of U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world use them.

A Window of Protection
Though the units are designed to meet U.S. government standards to protect the nation's installations overseas, they also are being used to protect courthouses. In the late 1990s, the Union Station Federal Courthouse in Tacoma, Wash., replaced its existing windows with greater protection after it suffered a drive-by style attack, which left a bullet buried in the second-floor wall of a federal judge's office. No one was injured, but every exterior office was threatened.

Even though the part of the courthouse was just more than a year old at the time of the attack, officials decided pull out the 34 second-story, noise abating windows that had been installed and replace them with Level 8 protective windows. Installation took place during off hours to permit normal courthouse activity to continue unimpeded.

But as other recent incidents have shown, courthouses need indoor protection as well. It is often too easy for witnesses, defendants or others to bring a weapon inside the building.

Historically, armed bodyguards have been the deterrent of choice. In light of modern advances in ballistics and optical technology, armed guards remain the most visible deterrent force but their contribution is backed up by an extensive electronic information system that informs them of security vulnerabilities outside their direct line of sight.

A Comprehensive System
The Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., is a good example of a comprehensive security system that goes from the parking lot, to the courthouse to the jail cells used for holding defendants awaiting trial.

In addition to its hardline protection, the Orlando courthouse also has softline security. That means electronic security that protects successive rings of security inside the building. These include 300 CCTV cameras that survey the parking facility, lobbies, hallways and the entry and exit points to the cellblock. Video cameras provide constant surveillance, as well as a continual digital record of activity and traffic in all these vital points.

The main lobbies in the courthouse are controlled access points -- much like an airport security entrance to the departure gates -- with metal detectors and X-ray systems to prevent the introduction of weapons. Video cameras also are linked to more than 600 access control card readers in the hallways, lobbies, parking and holding cell entrances, which require approved cards for entrance and exit.

At the heart of this ringed protection system is the electronics package that surveys and controls access to each of the at-risk zones. In a touchscreen filled control room, to support the video cameras and card access system, is a personnel duress system linked to an intercom and paging system.

Obviously, each courthouse jurisdiction must decide on the level of protection it believes necessary depending on its unique circumstances. Nevertheless, the rise of terrorism and outbreaks of homegrown violence show a need for enhanced security nationwide.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Security Products, pg. 30.

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