Alarmed by a rising tide of violent confrontations, many of them involving rival gang members, administrators at Juvenile Court have asked the county Board of Supervisors to approve the purchase of a walk-through security system for the busy Kearny Mesa facility.
On Tuesday, court officials will ask the supervisors for $31,000 to purchase an X-ray machine and metal detector--screening equipment they contend is necessary to intercept weapons and protect employees and litigants at the courthouse.
Juvenile Court Director Michael Roddy said the decision to install the airport-style system is a response to escalating tensions at the crowded court, where assaults and fights between gang members and other juvenile offenders have become increasingly common.
"In Juvenile Court you're dealing with highly emotional people--parents whose children are being taken away and a good number of criminals as well," Roddy said. "Over the years, our population has become more disturbed, more hostile. This is a preventive measure for us."
Attacks on Social Workers
Roddy said that, periodically, social workers have been attacked, attorneys have been threatened by distraught clients and many weapons have been confiscated by court marshals.
Gang graffiti cover the bathroom walls. Just two months ago, "gang members flashing full colors coasted through the lobby looking for a rival member who was on trial," Roddy said. "Luckily, he wasn't here. But it was a very dangerous situation."
Roddy said the system, which would be positioned at the front entrance to screen everyone but employees, who use another door to enter the building, will be paid for with money from a temporary courthouse construction fund. Members of a committee of judges and court administrators that decides how to use those funds have already agreed to the expenditure.
If supervisors approve the project, Juvenile Court would become only the second county courthouse with a permanent, walk-through security system. The new downtown Family Court branch at 6th Avenue and Beech Street, which opened in November, was the first to be equipped with the X-ray machine. (The federal court building is equipped with metal detectors.)
Successful Screening System
According to the county marshal's office, the screening system at Family Court has been highly successful, intercepting many weapons that, under state law, may not be brought into a courthouse.
Lt. Robert Curry, division commander of the courts, said that, during the first three months the system was in operation, marshals confiscated 55 knives, daggers or straight razors; 32 handguns; nine Mace containers; two stun guns and seven "miscellaneous" weapons.
"It runs the gamut, and a lot of it wouldn't be illegal if they weren't trying to take it in the courthouse," Curry said. "We've found pocket knives, buck knives, 7-inch scissors, kitchen knives. We even got a bottle of vodka. I guess someone was going to christen their divorce."
Often, weapons-related arrests lead to the discovery of drugs and other contraband, he said. Even law enforcement officers who are parties in cases may not bring their weapons to Family Court.
Presiding Superior Court Judge Michael Greer said that installing a security system at Juvenile Court is "absolutely imperative." The courthouse, with eight departments that handle an estimated 240 cases daily, is a crossroads where troubled youth, desperate parents and molested children mingle in tense expectation about their fate.
Security Problems Up
Moreover, because of staffing shortages in the marshal's office, the bailiff that once patrolled the lobby was shifted to a courtroom last year. Since then, the number of security problems in the facility has increased.
"If we don't do something soon, we're going to have ourselves a very bad occurrence up there where somebody is hurt or killed," Greer said. "You've got good kids the court is trying to protect and bad kids charged with misconduct all mixed together in the waiting room, with Crips and Bloods with virtually no security. It's a bad set of circumstances."
Greer added that the X-ray screening will inevitably spread throughout the San Diego County court system as new facilities are built.
"You walk into any courthouse in this country--Phoenix, Washington, D.C., wherever--and they have total security. We are really behind the times here," Greer said.
Guns, Knives Available
Indeed, at the downtown courthouse there is one portable walk-through screening unit used for high-profile and death-penalty cases, plus a hand-held metal detector.
"That's just not enough," Greer said. "Guns are available all over the place, and certainly knives are. We have a responsibility to our jurors and staff and witnesses to protect them. I shudder to think what's walking in the front door here."
Lt. Curry said that, inevitably, there will be complaints about the new system. Attorneys rushing to court hearings likely will grumble about delays caused by lines of people waiting to pass through the device.
"It's an inconvenience, and there will be a period of time when we'll have to train our people and get the machines adjusted just right, so they're not set off by a ring," Curry said. "It's unfortunate that our times demand it. But I think they do."