Courthouse security under scrutiny after Berrien Co. shooting

Police outside the Berrien County Courthouse on July 11, 2016.


ST. JOSEPH, Mich. (WOOD) — The worst case scenario for court officers came to life Monday in Berrien County, when defendant Larry Gordon wrestled a deputy’s gun away and opened fire.

Two bailiffs were killed and a deputy and woman were wounded during the third floor shooting.

INSIDE THE COURTHOUSE

The Berrien County Courthouse is similar to many courthouses built over the last 50 years. The four-floor facility was opened in 1964 with four courtrooms on the first floor for criminal trials.

The prisoners are taken from the county jail to the courthouse transfer area below ground where they are taken by elevator to one of two holding cells on the floor where the criminal trials are held. Last year, 3,440 defendants were transported from the county jail to the courthouse.

Berrien County Sheriff L. Paul Bailey said Gordon did not seem like someone who was going to kill his captors.

Berrien County Sheriff's Office Larry Gordon mugshot 071116
An undated mug shot of Larry Gordon. (Berrien County Sheriff’s Office)

“He’s not been combative; he’s always been cooperative the entire time he was here,” Bailey elaborated Monday.

“This is an unfortunate situation where the inmate, who wanted to break out, was able to overpower our deputy and get his weapon,” Bailey said.

USING THE RIGHT RESTRAINT

Capt. Klinton Thorne said Kent County sheriff’s deputies have handcuffs, leg irons and a belly chain that is strung through the handcuffs to restrict movement even more. The department also has a shock belt that can be used for exceptionally dangerous defendants who may need to be stunned. The level of restraint deputies use is different for every defendant.

“It can be demeanor at that time, it can be past behavior that we’ve witnessed in the past, things that they’ve done, current charges, many different factors,” Thorne said.

In most court appearances, defendants are handcuffed with their arms in front of their body so they can take an oath or sign documents.

Investigators said Tuesday Gordon was in handcuffs when he disarmed the deputy.

More restrictive gun holsters often used in situations where officers come into contact with suspects. However, it’s unclear if Berrien County uses holsters that make it difficult for weapons to be removed by anyone other than the person wearing the gunbelt.

During jury trials, bringing a suspect into a courtroom in shackles can be seen as prejudicial against the defendant. But at sentencing, it makes sense to use maximum restraint.

“We always try to learn from situations. Unfortunately these are situations you don’t want to have happen, but you try to use those things when you’re looking at procedures like that,” Thorne said.

GUN OR TASER?

Departments in Ottawa and Allegan counties told 24 Hour News 8 they are always looking at improving court procedures, but the Berrien County incident has heightened their awareness of courthouse safety.

The National Center for State Courts recommends the transport officer who has direct contact with the prisoner/defendant should be armed with a taser or baton instead of a firearm to minimize the chance of an in-custody defendant getting the weapon. However, none of the West Michigan courts 24 Hour News 8 contacted Tuesday adhered to that standard, arming deputies or bailiffs instead.

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