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Clayton County judges packing heat

By Ed Brock

Only eight weeks after a judge was gunned down in his courtroom in Fulton County, Clayton County judges have been issued guns by the County Police Department. But Sheriff Victor Hill, whose department is in charge of courthouse security, said he was not told of this and wants some answers.

The judges recently approached the Clayton County Police Department about getting the guns and the department did provide them with guns and some basic training on their operation, Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said.

Turner said the department would not comment on the number of guns they provided or what kind of guns, but deferred all further comment to the judges.

In a written statement, Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Stephen Boswell, while not confirming that his judges received guns, referred to the increase in security around the courthouse in light of the recent killing of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes. Barnes, his secretary and a Fulton County sheriff's deputy were killed at the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta during an escape by rape suspect Brian Nichols.

"In light of the March 11 courthouse shootings in our neighboring county, we all took immediate action for the security of our judges, staff and courthouse," Boswell said.

The distribution of the guns has displeased the sheriff.

"This was done without my knowledge or consent," Hill said. "To issue and bring guns into the courthouse without advance training and notifying the Sheriff's Office of the intent or the location of these weapons shows poor judgment on the part of all involved in the planning of this idea."

Hill said he needs to know where the weapons are and how they are being secured and will be filing an open records request for this information. He also said that if the judges are to carry weapons they need to receive regular training, not just preliminary training.

When he first heard about the guns he thought it was just rumors, Hill said, but one of his supervisors in court security told him that the judges had in fact been issued guns and walkie-talkies and one judges' staff member had asked about training with the Sheriff's Office.

Hill said he will not provide that training and "will seek legal advice to make sure that (the Sheriff's Office) is removed from the liability food chain."

"We want the voting citizens to know that this is not a part of the Sheriff's Office Court Security Plan and never will be," Hill said.

Boswell's statement did not directly address whether the Sheriff's Office was notified about the presence of the guns.

"The Courts have scheduled meetings on security with all law enforcement and to date not everyone has attended these meetings," Boswell said.

Hill said even judges' secretaries were offered guns.

Boswell also said it is not true that "weapons were offered to staff" but that advanced training has been scheduled for some individuals. Citing security matters, Boswell said in the statement that he would have no further comment.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said he is disturbed by Hill's decision to make public the fact that judges carry gun because doing so risks their security.

"There is nothing unusual about a judge having a gun. Judges carry guns all over the state," Teske said. "I feel like I have a bulls-eye on me. The person who's supposed to be protecting me is now telling people I have a gun."

The judges in Clayton County Juvenile Court each received a Glock .40 caliber handgun from the police department, Teske said, and were offered the opportunity to train any time at the county's firing range in Lovejoy. Those guns are kept in a secure location in the courthouse.

Teske said he carried a gun for 10 years when he served as a probation officer and was required to re-qualify with that gun every year. He made a perfect score each time, he said.

Judges are not required by law to have a permit to carry a gun, but because of their positions they are required by the state bar association to be found "morally fit" to carry a gun. Given the decisions they make each day, Teske said, they are also very vulnerable.

On occasions after an emotional custody case in which he has removed children from both parents he went to his car after the hearing to find members of the family standing near his car.

"I could overhear them saying 'Here comes the judge,'" Teske said. "I have nobody there to protect me."

Teske said he keeps a gun at home to protect his family whom he has had to move before due to threats being made against them. He does not carry a gun when he goes out in public, saying that was a risk he has to take.

Also, Teske said the judges approached the police department about getting the guns.

According to Hill's office State Court judges also received guns and guns were offered to Clerk of Superior Court Linda Miller.

State Court Chief Judge Harold Benefield and the other State Court judges were at a conference until Monday, according to Benefield's office.

Miller said she was offered a gun but turned it down.

"I don't need a gun," Miller said, but added that she might consider taking one later if training with the weapon was also provided.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell was informed of the distribution of the guns after the fact, said Michael Smith, staff attorney for the county. Smith said he didn't know if Bell's authorization was necessary for the guns to be issued.