Court security a growing concern
The location of a September 16 police standoff in Decatur, during which a Berne man was shot and critically injured by law enforcement authorities outside the Adams County Superior Court building, was not a random one, according to a county jurist.
And the proximity of the incident to the court building on Third Street could force local policy-makers to implement many of the court security measures recommended more than 10 years earlier.
According to initial police reports, on the Friday evening in question Jerry Nussbaum of Berne was found "waving a handgun and speaking in an erratic and angry manner" in front of the court building. Nussbaum was shot by an officer after allegedly raising his gun toward the police.
But Superior Court Judge Pat Miller this week said Nussbaum apparently was at that location for a very specific reason.
"From what I've been told, he said he was there looking for a judge," said Miller. "He was overheard saying he wanted the damned judges to do their damned jobs."
Because the standoff took place near the court building, Miller is required to submit a full report of the incident, including all police reports, to the State Court of Administration. And that report will likely only reinforce something Miller said has been common knowledge for the past decade or more: Security measures are woefully lacking not only at the Superior Court building but at the county courthouse and county Service Complex, as well.
Those inadequacies, Miller said, were first brought to light following the 1999 shooting death in Decatur of Indiana State Trooper Corey Elson. In anticipation of the pending trial of Mark Lichtenberger, who ultimately was convicted in Elson's slaying, U.S. Marshals Service did a security study of the county's court buildings.
Miller said the 1999 study "gave detailed recommendations on how to improve security," but focused primarily on the county courthouse. Some of those improvements — the least costly ones — were approved by the county commissioners, he said.
Because of the incident earlier this month outside the superior court, Miller expects another visit from the U.S. Marshal Service "to study my building and the Service Complex" and make additional security suggestions. And what they will find, he said, is the nearly complete absence of any court security measures currently in place.
"We have no guards, no metal detectors, no locked doors, no buzzers ... nothing," said the judge. "If Jerry Nussbaum had come to my building at 4 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., well ... that's a scary thought. We have a lot of security problems here that need to be corrected. I'm just not sure how to do that."
Currently the lone court security measure comes in the form of one police officer who is shared between the superior and circuit courtrooms. That setup, Miller said, is less than ideal. And the September 16 incident outside his court "really drove home the point that things need to change."
But those changes, Miller conceded, will be costly. He has talked with Adams County Circuit Court Judge Frederick Schurger, as well as to judges in neighboring counties and officials at the state level, about the availability of state or federal funding to assist in implementing security updates. He has also talked with Sheriff Shane Rekeweg and Chief Deputy Eric Meyer about possible solutions to the security inadequacies.
Miller said he will continue to research the matter and will make a presentation to the county commissioners "hopefully sooner rather than later." At the same time, he is fully aware that ongoing discussions surrounding a new court building in downtown Decatur will only make it less likely that funding will be approved for improved security measures at the existing court building.
It's not an ideal situation, Miller said. But changes are needed. And until they are, Miller and his court employees will be forced to maintain a heightened sense of awareness while on the job.
The judge said the September 16 incident "rattled my staff a little, but they've taken it in stride the best they can. I'm much more concerned about my staff and the public than I am for my own safety."
He just looks forward to the day when visitors to the court and staffers alike can feel safer in the court environment.