it happened at the U. S. Capitol, can it happen in Queens?
More than 20 gunshots pierced the silence along
the halls of the house of American democracy on July 24 sending tourists and
government employees scattering toward safety.
When the smoke cleared, two Capitol police officers lay dead
victims of a madman who breached the Capitols high-tech security system.
Scouring through the aftermath of the carnage, investigators
and government officials are questioning the effectiveness of scanners, metal detectors
and other security measures in place at the time of the shootings.
Meanwhile, closer to home, many people are asking the
question, "How safe are we in Queens?"
More than 680,000 people have passed through metal detectors
in place at Queens courthouses in 1998.
Courthouse security measures require that the general public
pass through metal detectors at entrances to almost all Queens courthouses, officials
The nearly 3,000 or so people employed at the Queens courts
are required to use other entrances, or show court officers their state-issued
identification cards. Lawyers may enter through main entrances, but must also display
court-issued identification cards.
By utilizing scanners and searching individuals on a
one-by-one basis, Queens court officers seized approximately 1,900 weapons since Jan. 1,
1998, said Captain Paul Christopher, head of security services at Queens courthouses.
Among the items seized were an assortment of knives, razors,
nunchaukas, brass knuckles, blackjacks, etc., Christopher said.
The weapons, many obviously intended for use inside the
boroughs courtrooms, are confiscated, tagged and shipped to a central police
location, where most are destroyed, said Major Jewel Williams, supervisor of uniformed
court personnel at the Jamaica Supreme Court.
Amazingly, many of the people who attempt to bring weapons
into court request that the items be returned, Williams said.
Court officers have arrested 23 people at courthouse
entrances since January 1998, Christopher said. They have also issued 23 summonses for a
variety of offenses, he added.
State officials agree that anyone attempting to bring a
weapon into court should be arrested, said Bill Bodie, Assistant Chief of Court Security
for New York State.
"But the sheer number of incidents makes that
impossible," Bodie said. "If we were to arrest each individual from whom we take
a weapon, we would do nothing else all day but make and process arrests," he said.
The only incident that guarantees arrest is when a person
enters carrying an illegal or unlicensed gun any type of gun Bodie said.
"The gun is taken and the person goes," he added.
"No questions asked."
In some cases, people argue with court officers over why they
have to surrender the weapons, Bodie said.
"They say the streets are unsafe where they live, and
they need the weapon for protection. We simply explain to them they can either
leave the weapon at the courthouse entrance, or go through the system with it," Bodie
"It doesnt take them long to understand. If
theyre stupid enough to come to court with a weapon, were smart enough to take
it away," he declared.
Court officials are unable to recall any serious incident
that took place inside Queens courtrooms in the past 10 years.
"There were only two really serious incidents involving
the courts," Bodie said. "And both of those occurred outside the Jamaica
The first incident centered around individuals who were
involved in divorce proceedings, Bodie said.
"The husband in a divorce case after a decision
had been handed down by a judge took a gun he had stashed in his car and chased his
wife and her sister down Sutphin Boulevard, where he shot and killed both of them, along
with an innocent bystander," Bodie said.
In a second incident, a defendant in a criminal case stalked
his attorney with a gun outside the courthouse, serious injuring the attorney, Bodie said.
"Its important to remember," he said,
"that both incidents occurred outside the courthouse."
Twenty six incidents took place so far in 1998 inside Queens
Family Court, and 28 "similar" incidents took place in Civil Court, Bodie said.
But no incidents have been recorded inside Criminal or Supreme Court, he said.
"We are proud of our people in Queens," said
Charles Compton, president of the Supreme Court Officers Association. "Day after day,
they face staff shortages and occasional equipment failure along with the general
stress of the job.
"Yet they continue to provide maximum security to the
people of Queens. Their record speaks for itself."
That record earned Queens court officers kudos in 1997, when
a study by an independent court monitoring group rated Queens courthouses among the top 10
in safety nationwide.
The survey, compiled by the Star Press Group revealed that
Queens court officers were successful in removing at least 90 percent of the weapons
people attempt to bring into court, thereby preventing serious incidents before they have
a chance to occur.
Officials agree that security must be maintained at the
highest possible level. But there are no guarantees. And there is no foolproof system.
"There is no such thing as 100 percent," Williams
"Regardless of what anyone does, if someone is
determined to injure or murder someone, chances are they are going to do it.
"No person and no amount of security can stop someone
whos dead set on causing a tragedy," she said.
Just across the street from the Kew Gardens Criminal Court,
Queens Borough Hall remains open with complete access to the public and borough employees
a situation that does not sit well with many Queens law enforcement officials.
"Thats Claires domain," said a police
source, citing Queens Borough President Claire Shulmans decision not to install
metal detectors nor to place security personnel at entrances to Borough Hall.
One New York City police officer sits at a small table
leading to Shulmans office, police sources said.
"If someone decided to take down the staff there, that
cop wouldnt stand a chance," the source said.
In April 1994, Queens Boulevard outside Borough Hall was shut
down for over an hour as police Bomb Squad cops inched a robot close to a backpack that
was left at Borough Hall just moments after employees received a telephone call of
a bomb threat. A similar call had been received the day before, prompting police to
evacuate hundreds of employees and to shut down the building.
Employees at Borough Hall told the Tribune at the time that
bomb scares werent uncommon and present-day employees agree.
"Something like this is routine for us," they said.
"When we hear that the building is being evacuated, we instinctively know why."
Police sources said that security must be beefed up at
"Doesnt it make more sense to catch a weapon or an
explosive device before a person can enter the building instead of calling out the
Bomb Squad as a response?" the sources said.
Another "victim" of the securitybarren
Borough Hall has been the Queens Marriage License Bureau, located at a side entrance to
Workers there were assaulted twice in the past year by gunmen
who stormed into the bureau as employees arrived for work.
The thieves threatened employees and fled with large amounts
of cash on both occasions, police said.
Court officials and police sources called on Shulman to
install metal detectors and personnel (most likely court officers) to monitor people
passing through Borough Hall.
Shulman spokesman Dan Andrews said the Borough President has
not requested metal detectors because she feels security is "adequate"
and the current one police officer at the entrance to Shulmans office provides a
"stop point" for people waiting to see the Borough President.
Andrews said Shulmans office asks for and gets
additional cops at Borough Hall when Shulman feels they are necessary.
Borough Hall the building itself, does not belong to
the Queens Borough Presidents Office, Andrews said. "We are a tenant. The
Department of Citywide Administrative (DCA) Services owns the building," he said.
"It is up to them to provide adequate security."
Calls to DCA were not returned by press time.
Security specialist and former NYC detective Beau Dietle
remembers security at Borough Hall as "almost nonexistent." He strongly urged
Shulman to install some type of security measure to hinder anyone who might try to bring a
weapon into the building.
Security experts say that the security at
Borough Hall is "almost nonexistent."
Tribune Photos By Liz Goff
"If someone is going to attack, the first line of
defense is where are you going to discover the weapon," Dietle said.
"If someone wants to shoot their way into a place or
kill someone it is very, very difficult to stop them," he declared. "But you can
minimize the risk by establishing a red zone, a freeze zone that only people with the
proper credentials can pass through."
Court security officials expressed concern over the lack of
safety measures at Borough Hall for another reason the Queens Criminal Court
Summons Section is located in the building.
"Sure we worry," a source said.
"For example, more than 40 Latin King members are due in
the Summons Section next week to answer violations," the source said.
"How do we secure the building, check for weapons in the
hands of the gang members and their associates without a metal detector?
"And who do we turn to if violence erupts, or some