By Bill Parry
Dozens of court officers rallied and handed out literature outside the Kew Gardens State Supreme Courthouse Thursday, warning the public — particularly court personnel and prospective jurors — of a security crisis in court buildings in New York City and across the state.
The action comes after court officers protested outside the Manhattan Civil Courthouse Oct. 16 during an appearance by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore who they blame for not hiring sufficient numbers of court officers since the start of the Great Recession in 2008 when there were more that 3,000 court officers equally split between two unions.
“Our courts are in crisis — and the safety of court officers, jurors and the public is at risk,” New York State Supreme Court Officers Association President Patrick Cullen said. “Court officer levels are down nearly 33 percent in the last 10 years; courtrooms that typically had for officers now have only two; a $35 million training academy budgeted 10 years ago is unfinished. Understaffing creates dangerous conditions in courtrooms and courthouse entrances.”
Cullen added that courtrooms around the city have been unable to open because of insufficient staff despite the recently passed state budget that contained $3 billion for courts, including more money for hiring new judges — but a minimal amount to replace the officers who left in the past year. The union leaders say two court officers should be hired for every new judge.
The officers told the public that violence is common, with more than 60 officers currently on injury leave both from the NYSSCOA, which handles the Supreme Courts, and from the New York State Association of Court Officers, who safeguard the criminal, civil, family and housing courts. Court officers confiscated a hand grenade in Queens in June and dozens of knives, meat axes and pistols in a four-week period just at the Jamaica courthouse.
Officers say the security lapses have led to dangerous situations in courtrooms, including scuffles and melees that have resulted in dozens of injuries to court officers and have exposed lawyers, judges, clerks and jurors to possible harm.
Officers frequently catch people trying to smuggle deadly weapons into courthouses.
“Almost every day, our officers are attacked or must break scuffles and melees,” NYSCOA President Dennis Quirk. “There have been at least eight deadly courthouse shootings across the country in the last five years. New York has been lucky so far, but at these dangerous staffing levels, it’s only a matter of time.”
The union leaders blame hiring freezes, retirement incentives and the failure to replace departing officers has lowered the number of court officers to between 2,550 and 2,600. The unions say guidelines issued in 2008 by Lawrence Marks, now the chief administrative judge of the New York State Unified Court System, have largely been ignored.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, dismissed the union leaders’ charges.
“There is no uptick in weapons smuggling, incidents of officers getting hurt or any compromising of safety for court users. To say so is untrue and reckless,” Chalfen said. “The safety and security of our court facilities is paramount.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr