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Critics: Some courthouses in Iowa lack basic security

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2014 11:03 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa courthouses have a variety of security features, with about half banning guns and fewer providing secure areas for judges and staff to work outside courtrooms, according to critics pushing for upgrades.

A gun incident in March at the Madison County Courthouse has sparked another push from the Iowa State Bar Association for upgraded security procedures at courthouses statewide, The Des Moines Register reported. The group published a report on the issue in 2005.

A review by the newspaper show a majority of courthouses lack safety features recommended by the bar association. Those features include metal detectors or entryways that are monitored by deputies.

The review also shows the varying degree of safety. In Jefferson County, there’s a bench fortified with bulletproof fiber. Other courthouses have thick law books stacked under the desks to protect judges from bullets.

Guy Cook, a Des Moines attorney and president of the bar association, said a lack of basic security such as restricted entrances has the potential to create dangerous situations.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he said. “It’s frankly irresponsible not to have basic security in these courthouses, given the world we live in.”

In March, authorities say a man brandished a handgun at the Madison County Courthouse after he was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison on a drug possession charge. He was apprehended a short time later.

The incident led to county supervisors banning firearms for the entire courthouse. Statewide, 59 of Iowa’s 100 courthouses impose firearms bans throughout their buildings. Some have bans only in courtrooms and staff areas.

Jefferson County, which has advanced security measures, borrowed $600,000 for its upgrade.

Supervisor Richard Reed said the extra expense was possible thanks to the county’s long-term approach to the renovations. He said it has fostered a unique working relationship between judges and county officials.

“I have a philosophy that we’re all taxpayers in the end and we all need to get along,” he said.

National statistics show Iowa has not experienced a high level of courthouse violence, said District Judge Michael Shubatt, a Dubuque judge and vice president of the Iowa Judges Association. A June 2012 report on security published by the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts shows five instances of “targeted violence” at courthouses in Iowa between 2005 and 2012.

“We’ve been fairly fortunate in Iowa that we haven’t had much courthouse violence, but I do think it’s an issue,” he said. “I think that there’s always a safety issue when you’re working in our business where emotions can run high, and I think that anybody who says that it can’t happen here is being naive, because it can and it does.”

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