Judges to discuss tighter courthouse security After officer left gun in bathroom, judges may tell cops to leave guns at door http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/10/11/1011copgun.html By Steven Kreytak AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Saturday, October 11, 2008 The criminal district judges in Travis County and representatives of the sheriff's office, which provides courthouse security, next week will consider banning outside law enforcement officers from bringing guns into the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center downtown. State District Judge Julie Kocurek said she suggested the discussion after an Austin police officer left a loaded gun in a public bathroom outside her courtroom Sept. 24. The gunwas found and secured by a pair of felony defendants, Kocurek said. The gun was safely recovered by the officer, who is now the subject of an internal affairs investigation. "It could have been very tragic," Kocurek said. "We were very fortunate." The proposal comes as a man is on trial in Atlanta over a 2005 courthouse shooting that led to debates at courthouses across the nation on the merits of allowing law enforcement to carry guns inside. Brian Nichols is accused of taking a gun from a sheriff's deputy when he was in custody facing rape charges and using it to kill the deputy, a judge and a court reporter. In an unsettling incident in Travis County this week, officials say members of a murder defendant's family tried to force their way toward the defendant and prosecutors near the judge's bench. No guns were drawn in that incident in state District Judge Wilford Flowers' court, but pepper spray was used by deputies to restore order. Members of the public are prohibited from bringing guns into the Travis County courthouse and are screened for weapons at the entrance, but law enforcement officers — who visit to testify, to get warrants signed by judges or for other reasons — are allowed to keep their weapons. Kocurek suggested that the county could institute a system similar to Austin's federal courthouse, where outside law enforcement officers put their guns in lockers by the door. That would leave sheriff's deputies who work in the courts as the only ones carrying guns. Sheriff's office spokesman Roger Wade said the office is always willing to discuss security improvements with the judges but said it is ultimately the sheriff's call on whether to ban guns. Wade said the decision on whether to allow guns is made statewide based on each individual courthouse's characteristics. Law enforcement in Hays and Williamson counties are allowed to bring guns into court. Wuthipong "Tank" Tantaksinanukij, vice president of the Austin Police Association, said that stopping outside law enforcement from bringing guns into the courthouse would be a mistake that would reduce courthouse security. "The officer (who left his gun in the bathroom) made a mistake and if they do that it's a knee-jerk reaction," he said. Tantaksinanukij said the department is addressing the issue by training officers to better secure their guns. In the Sept. 24 incident, an Austin officer identified by defense lawyers as Jason Bryant was waiting to testify on the seventh floor of the criminal justice center in a drug possession trial. Police Chief Art Acevedo said the officer removed his gun while going to the bathroom and left it in a stall. Kocurek said she had a busy docket that morning. She said a defendant facing a drug possession charge in her court found the gun. He did not speak English, though, and pointed it out to another defendant, who was facing a felony charge of driving while intoxication. While the first defendant kept anyone from going near the gun, the other defendant tracked down a sheriff's deputy. By the time a deputy got to the bathroom, Bryant had realized his gun was gone and returned to the bathroom to retrieve it, Acevedo said. It was out of his possession for only a few minutes, Acevedo said. Kocurek said she scolded Bryant for the lapse later that morning when he came to her court to apologize. "It's frightening," said lawyer Alberto Garcia, who represented the drug defendant who found the gun. "All it takes is for that one fellow who really has it out for a judge or a prosecutor or his own attorney ... to find the gun." County Court-at-Law Judge Elisabeth Earle recalled that several years ago an Austin officer left his gun in a bathroom in a secured area near her courtroom while he was testifying. Earle did not recall the officer's name but said that he left his gun in a bathroom adjacent to the jury room during a trial. A janitor found the gun and reported it to court personnel, she said. Earle said she favors limiting the number of people who have guns in the courthouse. Hector Gomez, the supervisory deputy U.S. marshal in Austin, said that only his officers are allowed to have guns in federal court, something that cuts out any confusion that might arise in an emergency situation. "We don't know who every officer is. They change their appearance, they transfer," he said, noting that officers don't wear uniforms in federal court. "We need to tell cop from criminal." State District Judge Bob Perkins said that allowing outside law enforcement made sense before the sheriff's office began to screen people for guns at the courthouse door in the 1990s. "Now," he said, "you already have armed guards there at the door." Defense lawyer Viktor Olavson, whose client reported the gun left by Bryant to deputies, suggested that even sheriff's deputies should not carry guns, as is the case in some courthouses. That would eliminate the chance of a similar incident as the Atlanta courthouse shooting. "What is the use of having a gun?" he asked. "If some crazy lunatic grabs one of those guns he can then shoot people. If nobody has a gun what is a crazy lunatic going to do? Beat somebody up? He will be outnumbered in no time and nobody would be shot."