County Magazine | July 31, 2023
Counties boost courthouse security to address growing threatsh
Last year, a man who was scheduled for a court hearing in Ector County placed a suspicious-looking device made of PVC pipe, held together with black tape and a wristwatch affixed to it, on the front steps of the courthouse.
An explosives team quickly determined it was a fake bomb. The man who placed it there, David Paul Finnegan, was later captured hiding under a shed on his girlfriend's property and sentenced to 41 months in prison.
It's one of many threats made on county courthouses in recent years — bomb hoaxes, suspicious-looking packages, warnings of gun violence. According to the Office of Court Administration, the number of security incidents reported has increased significantly in Texas courts, from 139 in 2012 to 588 last year — a 323% increase.
Darren Jackson, Senior Law Enforcement Consultant with the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) and a former sheriff who offers training on courthouse security, said most people making the threats aren't serious about causing harm. They're often trying to dodge hearings and consequences for other crimes.
"In today's time and culture, you have to take everyone seriously," he said.
Jackson said the counties that receive the most threats are those with more high-profile cases, more felony courts and higher incidents of murder and kidnapping, often those with bigger cities.
But smaller cities and counties aren't immune.
The Mason County Courthouse burned down in a suspected arson in February 2021. In June, a sub-courthouse in Kaufman County was damaged after officials said someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window.
Ector County has fewer than 200,000 people, whom Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett describes as mostly blue-collar and hardworking.
"You can have the most amazing community, but all it takes is one," he said.
Since last year's incident, Ector County has been updating its security policies, using money from its budget to install bullet-proof glass in the county clerk's office and an intercom system that will warn deputies and employees if there are any dangers at the courthouse. County officials are also convening a committee of department heads and the courthouse security team to devise an active shooter response plan, including training civilian employees.
In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act that requires such committees so that counties lay out policies and procedures for adequate courthouse security. A lone gunman wounded Kocurek outside her home in 2015. Federal prosecutors said the assailant tried to kill her because he feared she would revoke his probation for a previous conviction in her court.
Counties sometimes receive threats against judges and elected officials. It happens on occasion in Brazoria County, Sheriff Bo Stallman said.