Go slow and plan

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again, and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” —Mark Twain

Yes, make courthouse windows bullet proof or reflective, but stop there. One of the worst things that could happen in the aftermath of the shooting of Judge Weller is to leap to increasing courthouse security as politicians scramble to exploit the tragedy.

The Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11, 2001, both gave us tastes of knee-jerk policy changes on security measures, and we should have learned that it is foolish to take action in the heat of a highly publicized tragedy.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, for instance, immediately called for greater security and federal courthouse security funds. That kind of reactive statement is exactly what is not needed right now. One incident in Reno, Nevada, does not call for federal policy changes.

Had Sen. Reid done more preparation instead of just jumping onto a sudden opportunity, he might have been better able to propose useful measures. For one thing, the attack on Judge Weller came from outside the courthouse and would not have been deterred by more guards or still more airport-style security hardware.

For another, the problem in the Washoe County courthouse is not too little security or money. It is poorly planned and allocated security that throws a net around everything—the marriage license office as well the family court, for instance.

When security was installed at the courthouses, metal detectors were placed at every single entrance, giving Judge Weller’s staff and the law library staff the same level of security. But nearly all courthouse violence happens in family court. This blanket approach is ridiculous—the metal detectors should be removed from the entrances and placed at points of access to family court.

Courthouses need to be safe for people, but they need to be the people’s courthouses, too. Citizens need to feel comfortable in them and in contact with their government. Fortunately, some offices have been moved out of the courthouse so the public does not have to deal with excessive security. But that raises the question of why, if everything in the courthouse should be protected by such security measures, those measures are not also in place at the county complex on Ninth Street which houses so many offices formerly located in the courthouse.

The answer, of course, is that there are distinctions to be made and that planning should discriminate between blanket safety measures and precise safety measures.

There is another consequence to the present indiscriminate approach. The Washoe County Courthouse used to be a tourist attraction. People would visit to see where the movie stars got divorced. Then it became common to see tourists climb the courthouse steps, spot the metal detectors inside, and leave rather than go through the hassle. And now, security is so overreaching that those historic doors are permanently closed.

For our own citizens, our visitors, and our family court officers, it is time for a wise and discriminating courthouse security plan.