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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From the Front : Security Is a Serious Issue at Courthouse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every day more than 2,500 people pass through the doors of the San Fernando courthouse, home to both Municipal and Superior courtrooms.

There, it is the job of county safety officers such as Jesus Ruiz to make sure that none of these people--attorneys, jurors and messengers, as well as members of the general public--are carrying a knife or a gun.

Ruiz said most people understand that security procedures are necessary to maintain a safe atmosphere for everyone conducting business in the courthouse, and they don’t complain about having to walk through an airport-like metal detector. Occasionally, there are complaints--such as the lawyer whose suspenders triggered the metal detector alarm--but for the most part people appreciate the precautions, he said.

“Most attorneys are understanding and realize it’s for their own good,” Ruiz said. “They would rather be able to come inside and not worry about being shot or stabbed inside.”

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Shootings and violent incidents at other courthouses across the nation seem to have made people aware of the dangers of lax security, even on Mondays when the lines are long because hundreds of people are reporting for jury duty.

Still, most people seem to understand the need for the added security.

On a recent day, a messenger who came to court to file documents approached the metal detector, and without being asked placed his keyes, eyeglasses, watch, pen and change into a plastic container.

“It’s not an inconvenience whatsoever, and I go to every courthouse in the Valley,” said the messenger, who declined to give his name. “I’m always in a hurry, but it never has slowed me down that much. I have never been kept from filing because of those machines.”

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“I love it. I think it’s cool,” added Adolf Egyed of Sun Valley, who was patted down by Ruiz after setting off the machine. Egyed’s pocketknife with a three-inch blade was held at the door until he left. “I don’t think anyone should be intimidated into not testifying. It’s no inconvenience.”

Ruiz said knives with blades longer than four inches are not allowed in the courthouse. Knives with blades between two and four inches in length must be held at the door for their owners, and returned when they leave.

About a year ago, an X-ray machine was installed at the San Fernando courthouse. The device has made inspections move quicker because purses and briefcases no longer have to be inspected by hand.

Door security at San Fernando is provided under contract to the courts by the county’s safety police and Pinkerton Security and Investigation Services, one of several private companies that provide the county with officers.

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In June, court officials threatened to stop staffing metal detectors because of proposed budget cuts, but about $3 million needed in security-related funding for the Superior and Municipal courts was eventually found.

Metal detectors and X-ray machines were phased into county and municipal courthouses beginning in 1988 after a man brought a gun into a Van Nuys courtroom and tried to take a prosecutor hostage. The man was shot and killed by a bailiff.

In 1991, a woman was stabbed by her estranged husband outside a courtroom in the Van Nuys courthouse. There has never been a serious incident in San Fernando, according to court and county safety officials.

Bob May, who heads security for the seven Los Angeles Municipal courthouses, said the San Fernando facility is one of the least busiest. He said that for May, June and July--the most recent months available--692 knives with blades under four inches were “denied access,” and only one firearm was found.

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May did not have statistics immediately available on other courthouses, but he said Van Nuys would probably have five times as many incidents, and the downtown Los Angeles courthouse as much as 20 times more.

Perhaps the slower pace at San Fernando has helped Ruiz maintain an even demeanor while keeping the courthouse safe.

“If we are courteous to people, they in turn are courteous with us,” he said.


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