In the aftermath of a fatal courthouse shooting that many predicted would happen but few took steps to prevent, the county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to transfer all courthouse security responsibilities from county safety police to the Sheriff's Department.
Supervisors also pledged to find other stopgap ways of improving security at county courthouses by Thursday, and asked the Sheriff's Department to report within the next few weeks on what kind of long-term methods, such as use of metal detectors, are needed.
However, the county's presiding judge immediately warned that the county's continuing budget crisis will make it all but impossible to find the money to put such security upgrades in place.
"The amount of funding we are provided is below what our budget is," Superior Court Presiding Judge Gary Klausner said in an interview after the supervisors voted during their weekly meeting. "That already is causing problems, day to day. Right now there is no money."
But Klausner added, "We have to find the funds to be able to provide security. We just have to do it. We have to keep the courts open and secure."
The calls for improved security came as a result of a fatal shooting in the Downtown Civil Courts facility Friday, when authorities said, an angry physician allegedly shot his ex-wife in front of their young daughter after a morning court hearing. The Downtown courthouse, like many other civil courthouses, had no metal detectors and few security measures in place.
Eileen Zelig, 40, of Chatsworth was shot in the chest while she and ex-husband Dr. Harry Zelig were riding an escalator on their way to another court appearance on a different floor, authorities said. Zelig had often complained that she feared her husband would attack her, according to authorities, friends and court records.
Board Chairwoman Gloria Molina said the need for more security at all county courts, hospitals and mental health clinics has been well known for years.
In fact, county supervisors have been calling for increased security since at least 1988, when the board created a special task force to investigate better security measures after a shooting in a Van Nuys courthouse.
Although that task force recommended better security and weapons screening at all county courthouses--and received $9 million to start such efforts--only one in three courthouses ever received security improvements, said Chief Robert F. Mann, head of the Sheriff Department's Court Services Division.
Klausner told supervisors Tuesday that court administrators have for years asked for metal detectors and other improved security systems. In recent months, those concerns have grown exponentially, Klausner said, now that so many unsecured civil court facilities are being used to try criminal cases, including cases that could put convicted felons away for life under the state's "three strikes" law.
"It is a problem that exists in every courthouse in the county handling civil and criminal cases," Klausner said. "It is a problem that has to be addressed countywide."
A study conducted earlier this year by court administrators determined that full-scale security measures at all 56 municipal and superior courthouse around the county would cost at least $5.5 million, in addition to existing measures.
During the board discussion of the need for improved courthouse security, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke disclosed that her office had met with court officials only two days before the fatal shooting to determine ways to make courts safer.
Authorities also disclosed Tuesday that there were no sworn county safety officers patrolling the hallways of the Downtown facility at the time of the shooting. Klausner told the board that even he was not aware of an existing arrangement in which sheriff's deputies only have responsibility for inmate transfers and security inside courtrooms.
In most of the county's courthouses, all other security--including entrance screening and hallway patrols--is the responsibility of sworn county safety officers, who work for the county's Internal Services Department. They also oversee contract security guards from companies such as Wells Fargo, said county Safety Police Chief Steve Barnes.
While they determine ways of paying for security, the supervisors voted 4 to 0, with Supervisor Mike Antonovich absent, to have the Sheriff's Department take over all courthouse security operations during working hours, including oversight of contract security guards.
Klausner supported such a move, as did court services chief Mann, who told the supervisors the move would allow more uniformity in security services and less confusion.
"There should be one entity in charge of courthouse security," Mann said later. "There's no two ways about that."
Barnes said his department was already negotiating such a transfer of duties to the Sheriff's Department. "This will probably speed things up, but we would not be unhappy to see this happen," Barnes said. "They have the manpower."
Barnes said he has only 125 sworn officers and 15 supervisors with the authority to carry weapons.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sponsored the motion to find ways to fund metal detectors and other security measures for all courthouses.
Yaroslavsky said security is needed to prevent shootings like the one that occurred Friday. He said metal detectors and other measures can be implemented for far less than the overall $5.5-million price tag given by court administrators.
Arraignment for Harry Zelig is scheduled for today. He is being held on $1 million bail.