The Baltimore sheriff's office said yesterday that it would beef up security at a city courthouse after a lapse last week left a circuit judge without backup when he called for deputies to restrain an unruly defendant.
Most significantly, the room where deputies monitor court security cameras and are alerted to courtroom "panic button" alarms will be continuously staffed - even if supervisors have to fill in because of a shortage of officers, a sheriff's spokesman said.
That room was empty last week when Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell pushed the panic button on his bench after a defendant violently resisted going to prison. Sheriff's officials said recent retirements left them unable to staff the monitor room that morning.
To prevent such a breakdown from happening again, top officials from the courthouse and sheriff's department met yesterday to review the incident and security measures at the Courthouse East building on North Calvert Street.
"All the parties agreed that the situation in Judge Mitchell's courtroom cannot reoccur," said Capt. Marshall T. Goodwin, a spokesman for Sheriff John W. Anderson. "It was a good meeting in terms of everyone coming together around a common goal, that is the security of the courthouse buildings."
The defendant in last week's incident eventually was subdued by correctional officers who were in the courtroom guarding other prisoners, city police officers who happened to be nearby because they were defendants in a civil lawsuit and a squad of deputies who arrived six to 12 minutes after the outburst began.
No deputies have faced disciplinary action. Goodwin said an internal investigation is expected to be completed next week and will determine whether any disciplinary action is appropriate.
For now, he said, the department is focused on preventive measures. In addition to full-time staffing of the courtroom monitors, the sheriff's office plans to expand security training and push the city for funding to hire additional officers. Fourteen deputies in the 160-employee sheriff's office retired June 30.
Goodwin said the department will ask the city for funds to fill the empty positions and to add extra officers.
"I've got to be honest with you, we're short of personnel," Goodwin said. "We don't have the people to do what we used to do."
But the department will try to do more at the courthouse, he said. By law, one deputy is stationed full-time in each of the criminal courtrooms. On a typical day, that means a deputy in each of 18 courtrooms. But that number can be as many as 21, if retired judges are handling cases or judges from the civil division pick up criminal assignments.
Larry D. Reiner, court administrator, said the corrective steps outlined by the sheriff's department appeared to address concerns raised by last week's incident.
Mitchell, who last week said the sheriff's office "blew it," attended the meeting, but declined to talk to a reporter about it. Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller, who also attended the meeting, referred questions to Goodwin.
Anderson did not attend the meeting. Goodwin said the sheriff was with the family of a deputy hospitalized after a traffic accident. The sheriff's chief deputy and his chief of security were at the meeting, along with two other top officers, he said.