Florida's new security workgroup has begun studying courthouse safety

By Tara Mapes | Nov 9, 2016

FORT LAUDERDALE — After a year of alarming escapes by inmates while in custody at Florida courthouses, the Broward County Sheriff's Office (BSO) and the Broward County Board of Commissioners continue to disagree on the source of increased escapes. But they do agree a solution is needed. 

In a statement released by Broward County after the escape of a maximum security inmate from the courthouse, Broward County Mayor Marty Kiar said the only focus should be on capturing the escaped inmate and ensuring the safety of the public. 

"Once he has been captured and public safety restored, a full investigation will be done, all of the facts collected and we will determine how and why this occurred and take any corrective action that is necessary," Kiar said in the statement.

The National Center for State Courts has established best practices for courthouse security including an armed law enforcement officer be present in courthouses; however, not one armed enforcement officer was present during the July escape, reports indicate.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel blamed lack of funding and the county board of commissioners for failing to provide enough funds to adequately staff courthouses. 

“If the county's listening, we need more money we need more people,” Israel told local reporters. “Philosophically, there's a difference between Broward County and your sheriff. The county believes that my job is to save dollars. I believe my job is to save lives.”

In response to Israel’s allegations, the board of county commissioners responded that it was both surprised and disappointed by Israel’s “attempts to link [the escape] to courthouse security funding.” 

“County staff submitted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with $2.6 million in funding to BSO on Sept.28,  2015, that provided for the hiring of new personnel for courthouse security. To date, BSO has not taken any action to access the available funds," the board said in a statement.

The board said the 2015 funding permitted the BSO to increase the number of armed deputies by 100 percent, from 29 to 58, among other additions.

“The Broward County Commission has a strong and ongoing commitment to enhanced public safety in our community and has worked tirelessly with the sheriff to provide appropriate security funding for the courthouse and develop an enhanced security plan for the new courthouse. The commission also has an obligation to ensure fiscal responsibility with taxpayer money, which funds the majority of BSO's operating budget, including courthouse security,” the statement read.

In August 2016, Craig Waters, director of public information for the Florida Supreme Court, said in a press release,  that thousands of citizens seek justice and the peaceful resolution of disputes within the walls of Florida’s courthouses each day. 

"The safety of our courts is all the greater when people see violence erupt in their own streets and communities as they have this summer, Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said Monday, when he announced a new workgroup to study local courthouse security," the release said.

Labarga noted in the release that every day in Florida’s courthouses, people are living through heartbreaking dilemmas in both criminal and civil cases.

“We must do everything in our power to make sure that these buildings remain safe and secure and that the troubles we hope to resolve are not compounded by acts of violence in the very place reserved for justice," Labarga stated in the release. "It is key to our freedoms as Americans. We want to move ahead quickly on this issue – and stay ahead. There can be no question of its urgency. It is underscored by the shock, fear and grief we all have witnessed and experienced this long summer.”

Waters told the Florida Record that the trial court security workgroup had its initial meeting in August and discussed the charges, workgroup scope within those charges and reviewed current literature and research surrounding courthouse security.

In the trial court commission’s budget meeting in August 2016, it requested a budget of $2,140,716 of which $1,965,380 is allocated for an additional 20 full-time security coordinators and $171,176 for "expenses."

“The workgroup has now turned its attention to examining the current state of security within Florida’s trial courts to assist in developing concrete recommendations to enhance security practices and procedures, " Waters told the Florida Record. "Throughout this process, the workgroup will engage subject matter experts to offer further insight on the status and best practices of courthouse security within the state and nationally."

Waters said through the use of a collaborative approach, the workgroup will develop recommendations to submit to the judicial management council for consideration by the Supreme Court. He did not provide a timeline for the final recommendations.

“The workgroup has only just begun its work and has been appointed for two years to address the full scope of the charges,” Waters said. 

He added that due to the sensitive nature of this subject matter area and the confidentiality of some of the information, it is difficult for him to comment on what specific elements the workgroup is addressing at this time.

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Broward County Broward County Sheriff Florida Supreme Court National Center for State Courts

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