Security at Hamilton, Butler County courts under review

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A prime suspect in the death of a Liberty Twp. mother tried to grab a bailiff’s gun to escape custody June 6 while in Fairfield Municipal Court. Harvey “Shawn” Johnson, 32, was seated by other prisoners when he walked over to bailiff James Cochran a

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

In the first six months of 2016, nearly 7,000 prisoners were transported from the Butler County Jail to courtrooms and back without incident. During that same time period, 136,000 people have passed through the county’s government services center, juvenile and three area court security points.

That’s a lot of people and a lot of situations for the Butler County Sheriff’s Office and court security to assess and keep watch over.

“The job is inherently dangerous,” said Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer.

The reality of just how dangerous and unpredictable court security is happened on July 11 in Michigan when two veteran bailiffs, who were retired police officers, were shot and killed by a prisoner being moved from a holding cell to a courtroom. The prisoner was also shot and killed.

Both Hamilton Municipal Court and the Butler County Common Pleas Court are currently undergoing a review by the Ohio Supreme Court on security procedures. Results and recommendations will be known in a couple months.

“The times they are a changing. What may have been good security 10 years ago or even five years ago may not be right for today. We are trying to be proactive,” Butler County Common Pleas Judge Craig Hedric said.

Since escape attempts in Fairfield and Middletown municipal courts, security measures have been changed.

“It was one of the reasons for the remodel four years ago,” said Steve Longworth, Middletown’s director of court services.

In 2008, Harvey “Shawn” Johnson was booked in to the county jail on a federal probation violation and he was a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend Kiva Gazaway. Johnson was transported to Fairfield Municipal Court where he had a minor contempt of court violation. That is where he saw his opportunity.

Johnson tried to grab the gun of a bailiff in an attempt to escape. He was tackled by police officers and court personnel in the courtroom. He was later convicted of Gazaway’s murder as well as aggravated robbery and escape and sentenced to life in prison.

During Johnson’s trial, the courtroom doors were locked and he was fitted with a shock belt to assure he did not try a similar escape from Judge Andrew Nastoff’s common pleas courtroom. There were no incidents.

Defendants have bolted from Middletown Municipal Court and common pleas court several times in the past 10 years.

Also in 2008, Terrence Candidate, a defendant being escorted into Hedric’s fourth-floor courtroom for a verdict, bolted down the steps and was shocked with a Taser about 20 seconds later after reaching the second floor of the court wing where deputies were waiting for him.

That same summer, Michael Douglass, an 18-year-old convicted in the brutal slaying of a man at a West Chester Twp motel, spit at Hedric, cursed, then tried to escape after the judge sentenced him to life in prison. Court security grabbed Douglass, who did not get far while trying to run in shackles and handcuffs.

“You just never know how people are going to react in a desperate situation or how the spectators are going to react,” Hedric said. “But you can certainly try to minimize the opportunities for something to happen.”

Bailiffs in Butler County’s Common Pleas courtrooms are not armed, but court security officers and deputies transporting prisoners do carry firearms.

Dwyer said officers are trained in handcuffing techniques and positioning themselves as a less tempting target, but there is no perfect protection because inmates are always thinking and have plenty of time to do it, he said.

Paper clips, pieces of a chair and parts of a leg iron have been fashioned into weapons by prisoners. Then there are family members who try to pass them inmates items while in the courtroom.

An inmate recently came back from court with a $20 bill.

“No one knows where he got it,” Dwyer said, “Did someone throw it to him, or did he see it and reach over and pick it up? Either way, it is contraband.”

Dwyer said his biggest concern is complacency.

“You know we move so many people every day, do it so often without problem, that is when there is a tendency to become complacent, that’s when something happens.”

Joe Murray, Hamilton Police Department corrections manager and retired police officer, agrees.

“They (prisoners) are masters of manipulation, they are always looking for an angle. You just can’t believe them,” Murray said.

Murray noted he learned the hard way while walking a man he had arrested for a DUI into the police station on Front Street.

“He seemed like an OK guy, until he took off running and I had to chase him to the middle of the river. I never believed anyone again,” he said.

Officers in Hamilton Municipal Court are armed, but do not enter the holding cell area with their weapons, Murray said, adding they want to take the opportunity away from prisoners in a tight area to grab a weapon.

“We can survive a struggle or physical fight, but not a shooting,” Murray said.

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