New security at Ark. courthouse where gunman hit

AP News
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Posted: Sep 14, 2011 9:26 PM
New security at Ark. courthouse where gunman hit

No one stopped James Ray Palmer as he walked into a rural courthouse unusually dressed for a simmering Arkansas afternoon in a long coat, hiding two handguns and an assault rifle. With no metal detectors or guards at the building's six entrances to deter him, he asked to speak to a judge. Then he opened fire.

Before dying after a shootout with police, Palmer injured a receptionist and terrified workers at the Crawford County courthouse in Van Buren, a rural town near the Oklahoma border. He also highlighted the vulnerability of the state's many small, rural courthouses where the guards, armed police and metal detectors common in larger cities are often too expensive.

The historic courthouse was closed Wednesday as local officials worked to implement new safety procedures to prevent a similar attack. Pete Hollingsworth, director of court security for Arkansas' Administrative Office of the Courts, said he also was fielding calls from several counties wanting information about how to make their buildings more secure.

Like many rural courthouses across Arkansas, Crawford County's building has metal detectors only at courtroom entrances that are used when court is in session. But even the detectors go unused if a sheriff's deputy isn't available to operate them, Hollingsworth said.

"Several counties have metal detectors, but due to lack of funding or manpower they are not manned," he said. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight just because someone wants it."

Hollingsworth said he didn't send security warnings to other courthouses after the shootings because he didn't yet have the final report from state police.

When Crawford County reopens its courthouse Thursday, only one entrance will be open and the other five will be alarmed and locked from the inside. Sheriff's deputies will be posted at the main entrance, and employees and visitors will be subject to search, said John Hall, Crawford County's chief administrator.

"We're going to do our best," Hall said. "We've just got to make this workplace as comfortable as we can for them, as safe as we can for them."

The courthouse also is a tourist attraction, so officials want to keep it open to visitors. The first portion of it was built in 1842, and it is believed to be the oldest active county courthouse west of the Mississippi River, according to the county's website.

"This is a friendly county," Hall said. "We pride ourselves on an open courthouse. It's a shame, but the situation today is: that's not conducive anymore."

Police say Palmer, 48, of Kibler, went to the courthouse to speak to Arkansas Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell, who police believe handled Palmer's divorce and child custody proceedings in 2008. When Cottrell's receptionist told him that the judge wasn't there, Palmer pulled out a gun and shot her in the leg as she tried to flee, authorities said.

Employees hid under desks and behind doors as Palmer walked outside, where he exchanged gunfire with police. Witnesses heard dozens of gunshots from blocks away. Palmer later died at a local hospital.

Although he wasn't stopped before getting inside the building, other security measures may have helped.

State law passed four years ago gave Crawford County almost $8,000 in grants for court security, Hollingsworth said. The county used that money to help pay for security cameras, keycard access to building offices and panic buttons that could contact police _ and one witness said she pressed her panic button when she saw Palmer walking out of the courthouse. The cameras also caught Palmer as he entered and exited the courthouse, though authorities have declined to release the tape.

Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said authorities believe Palmer, who had no criminal history and was licensed to carry concealed weapons, acted alone. The motive behind the shootings was unclear. Palmer's relatives didn't return phone messages Wednesday.

The receptionist was hospitalized with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening. A Van Buren police officer was also struck in his left leg but was treated and released.

In other parts of Arkansas, officials said they were concerned by what happened but didn't have the funding to make immediate changes. Mike Skarda, the chief administrator in Prairie County, said his county's courthouse has no metal detectors or security inside, though the sheriff's office is nearby.

"We're trying to do as much as we can," he said, noting that spring flooding has strained the county's already thin budget. "As far as money for all these things, that's a major problem for a small county like us."