A May escape attempt at the Santa Monica Courthouse, which resulted in the death of an inmate and injuries to four sheriff's deputies, has prompted county officials to examine potential security improvements at the facility.
The examination is part of a Chief Administrative Office study, due out in mid-November, on court needs in the Santa Monica-West Los Angeles area.
The county Board of Supervisors has earmarked $500,000 in state funds to help reduce security risks and alleviate overcrowding at the Santa Monica facility, where two construction projects have also been approved, according to 4th District Supervisor Deane Dana.
But major revamping of the facility will not be undertaken until June at the earliest, said Dennis Morefield, a spokesman from Dana's office.
Law enforcement officials say security improvements at the facility are overdue.
"The security level here is unacceptable," said Sheriff's Capt. Ed Padias, whose deputies serve as bailiffs at Santa Monica Superior Court. "It doesn't rate very well in comparison to other county courthouses."
Deputy Marshal Kenneth Glover of the county Marshal's Office, which oversees security in the Municipal Courts, agreed.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 4," Glover said.
The two law enforcement officials said the courthouse has been plagued by security problems because of the layout of the building, understaffed security forces and the increasing number of cases being heard there.
Sheriff's Deputy Robert Madison, who shot the inmate in the May escape attempt, said that in his five years at the courthouse, seven prisoners scheduled to appear in Santa Monica Superior Court have tried to escape. One was successful.
Madison said the successful escape represented a major security problem: Once a prisoner is out of the control of a security officer he can easily leave the building.
Madison recalled that several years ago a woman prisoner simply walked out of the courtroom and left the building.
There have been about 10 attempted escapes in Municipal Court since 1980, Lt. Robert Capps of the Marshal's Office said. Eight of those were defendants who ran out of the courtroom, he said. Capps said he could not find a record of any successful escapes.
The number of attempted escapes at the Santa Monica facility is considerably higher than at courthouses of the same size elsewhere in the county, Padias said. In the past five years, two attempts have been made at the courthouse in Pasadena, one in Torrance and five in Van Nuys.
Prisoners bound for the Santa Monica Courthouse are not held and transported within secure areas, according to Sgt. Don Hull of the Sheriff's Department. About 50 prisoners are processed every day at the courthouse.
Prisoners are transported through public hallways, judge's chambers and public parking lots to reach courtrooms, he said.
"The access for escape is higher than in most criminal court buildings," Madison said.
Moreover, the Sheriff's Department lacks an adequate communications system between courtrooms and the main office, Hull said. If an incident occurred in one of the three portable courtrooms located behind the courthouse, sheriff's deputies would be unable to call for assistance, Hull said.
The May escape attempt involved four male inmates who freed themselves from handcuffs and attacked a sheriff's deputy who opened the lockup, said John Ouderkirk, the deputy district attorney in charge of the case.
Ouderkirk said the four inmates overpowered three other unarmed deputies and were outside the lockup when Madison shot and killed Derrick Swazie Harris, 26. Ouderkirk said one of the inmates was "about to get out the back door" when Madison appeared on the scene.
Ouderkirk said that as a result of the escape attempt the three other inmates, Eric Martin, James Wingfield and Thomas Gadson, were each charged with murder (for their involvement in the incident that led to Harris' death), assault, two counts of simple assault on a peace officer and two counts of doing great bodily harm to a peace officer.
Their preliminary hearings, which are scheduled for Oct. 28, will be conducted in a security courtroom in downtown Los Angeles with a Santa Monica judge presiding.
Five days after the escape attempt, the Board of Supervisors allocated $92,064 for construction of a special enclosure for prisoner buses at the Santa Monica Courthouse. Completion is scheduled for Nov. 15.
Supervisor Dana also said that $25,000 has been appropriated to build a secure room where attorneys can interview inmates.
But several other improvements suggested in June by law enforcement and court officials have een set aside until the Chief Administrative Office study is finished, Dana said. Those suggestions include installing a prisoner's elevator, building a ventilation system in the lockups and installing a communication system to connect the bailiffs and the main offices, he said.