How Safe Are Queens' Public Buildings?
By LIZ GOFF
In light of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Tribune reopened a 1998 investigation of Queens municipal buildings to update readers on changes and improvements. Here are our findings.
At Borough Cabinet meeting on Oct. 16th, Borough President Claire Shulman assured those present that security has been stepped up at Borough Hall with guards checking the identification of everyone entering the building.
At presstime, Shulman was holding talks with court officials to determine whether the installation of metal detectors was necessary at the municipal buildings side entrance.
1998: The Tribune learned in 1998 that courthouses in Queens utilized the most failsafe security systems of any public buildings in the borough.
They were on target and effective the boroughs "silver bullet" of security.
2001: Courthouses in Queens remain the safest of all municipal buildings in the borough.
Almost 700,000 people passed through metal detectors and high-tech scanners in 2000 at Queens courthouses. Once they have been "scanned," the same people must go through a "body check" by court officers using a hand-held scanner, said Bill Bodie, chief of Court Security for New York State.
While performing the scans, Queens court officers seized more than 2,000 weapons, said Captain Paul Christopher, head of security at Queens courthouses.
The weapons, an assortment of knives, razors, numbchucks, brass knuckles, guns, blackjacks and box cutters were most likely intended for use inside the boroughs courtrooms, said Major Jewel Williams, supervisor of uniformed court personnel. The weapons are confiscated, tagged, and shipped to a central police location where they are destroyed, Williams said.
Amazingly, many of the people found "carrying" expect that the weapons will be returned when they leave the courthouse, he said. A percentage of violators are arrested, and others are issued summonses, Bodie said.
"We agree that each individual should be arrested," he said. "But the sheer number of incidents makes that impossible. If we were to arrest each offender, we would do nothing all day but make and process arrests."
State officials said they are considering establishing a unit at courthouses to do just that, so all offenders will go through the system. At present, only people who try to bring a gun into the courthouses are arrested. "The gun is taken and the person goes," Bodie said. But in light of the recent necessity for airtight security, that is bound to change. "We are determined to do everything we can to prevent a tragedy," he said.
1998: The offices of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown were wrapped up tight in 1998, a fortress without a moat. There is a message here: Dont mess with these folks.
2001: In Kew Gardens, the offices of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown are now housed in two locations, several blocks apart.
Browns office remains attached to the Kew Gardens courthouse. The offices themselves are a veritable fort, protected on all sides by cameras, security guards, police and locking doors that require visitors to be "buzzed in."
Strict measures are taken once inside, including a metal scan and a strict requirement of a photo ID for those who wish to enter. Amazingly, these same measures are used on a daily basis and when hoards of media arrive to cover a press briefing or other "event."
Just last week, a security guard spotted and reported a suspicious package in the lobby of Browns other office complex on Queens Boulevard, setting off a frenzy of police activity and resulting in the evacuation of the entire building, the courthouses and surrounding buildings. The "bomb" scare was a dud but security at the offices proved effective, and quick to respond to the emergency.
The second set of offices is located at 80-02 Kew Gardens Rd., in the same building that houses the editorial offices of Newsday.
There are two uniformed police officers at a "dedicated post" in the lobby of the building. Once visitors obtain clearance there, they must go through a series of checkpoints leading into the actual offices on an upper floor.
Clearly, no one is getting into these offices without clearance and proper identification.
1998: Security? What security? The Tribune reported in 1998 that Queens Borough Hall was completely without security. No guards. No cops. No metal detectors. No way to prevent a tragedy.
We found, in our just-completed probe, that much has changed in light of the events of Sept. 11.
2001: Police Officers are checking identification of every person entering Queens Borough Hall. Dan Andrews, press secretary to Borough President Claire Shulman, said that meetings are going back on schedule, the Borough Board and Cabinet are addressing the concerns of Queens, and although there is hightened security at Borough Hall and traffic is backing up, people are attending the meetings. However, he admitted attendance is not what it was before Sept. 11.
Shulman announced at a recent Borough Board Meeting that she plans to meet with court security administrators to establish metal detectors and other means of security at the lower-level entrance to the Criminal Court Summons part at Borough Hall.
Security specialist and former NYPD detective Bo Dietl remembers security at Borough Hall as "non-existent." He strongly urged Shulman to install some sort of security system to stop anyone who might try to bring a weapon or explosive device into the building.
"If someone is going to attack, your first line of defense is finding a weapon or device," Dietl said.
"You can minimize any risk by establishing a red zone, a freeze zone that only approved people can pass through."
Another reason for concern is the fact that the Criminal Court Summons Section is located in the basement of Borough Hall. On a daily basis, more than 800 people file through the summons part to answer to a judge. In some cases, more than 25 members of the Latin Kings or Crips street gangs have arrived there to answer summonses, sources said.
"How do we secure the building from guns and other weapons? And who do we turn to when a tragedy occurs?," the source said.
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