Commentary: Thinned ranks of court officers leave courtrooms vulnerable

by | Oct 10, 2018 | Press

There is a crisis in our courts threatening the safety and security of judges, lawyers, court officers and the thousands of members of the public who use the courts every day — including prospective jurors, who would be less likely to want to do their civic duty if they knew how dangerous the state courts are.

It has been a crisis in the making for at least a decade, perpetuated by staffing shortages, hiring freezes and misguided or hypocritical spending choices.

Those events have led to security lapses and dangerous situations in courtrooms, including melees that have resulted in dozens of injuries to court officers and have exposed lawyers, judges, clerks and jurors to possible harm.

Ten years ago, there were more than 3,000 court officers almost equally split between the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association (NYSSCOA), which handles Supreme Court proceedings, and the New York State Court Officers Association (NYSCOA), which handles the criminal, civil and family courts.

Hiring freezes, retirement incentives and the failure to replace departing officers has lowered that number to between 2,550 and 2,600. Staffing guidelines issued in 2008 by Lawrence Marks, now the chief administrative judge with the Office of Court Administration (OCA), have been largely ignored.

That means many courtrooms and corridors are woefully understaffed. The recently passed state budget contained $3 billion for courts, including more money for hiring new judges — but a minimal amount of money to replace officers who left in the past year. Two officers should be hired for every new judge, at the very least.

There once were five officers assigned to major or high-profile cases. Four officers were once assigned to the defendant’s desk in major cases; now it’s generally two. There have been numerous felony assault cases — and one recent manslaughter case — with just one officer in the courtroom.

Overtime has been slashed so deeply that sometimes there are not enough officers to staff openings in the mornings. Unlike the federal system, state court buildings do not have around-the-clock staffing. We’ve had instances when homeless people slept in courthouses overnight.

Violence is on the rise in courthouses across the country. A 2013 report from the National Center for State Courts found violent incidents in state courts rose from 10 in 2005 to 67 in 2011.

There have been at least nine fatal courthouse shootings nationwide in the past five years, where defendants have tried to rush the witness stand, attacked court officers and even tried to shoot a judge. Eventually, this will happen here, and we will be unable to adequately protect the public due to serious staff shortages.

We’ve had dozens of scuffles and melees and attacks on court officers in New York; about 60 officers are on leave recovering from injuries. Barely a day goes by when officers do not confiscate weapons people try to smuggle into court buildings. In a recent four-week period, officers confiscated dozens of knives, meat axes, pistols and brass knuckles from just one court building.

The crisis will worsen in October when the “Raise the Age” law kicks in and 16- and 17-year-olds will be shifted to Family Court from Criminal Court and Supreme Court for all but the most serious cases. This new law will overwhelm the Family Court system; more judges and officers will be needed to handle the heavier caseload.

It is clear to us that a storm is coming. Enough is enough. The OCA and the governor must step up now and make sure we have the proper resources to make the courts safe. Lives depend on it.