PROVIDENCE, R.I. Feb 22 2017— After two Superior Court appearances were quickly followed by shootings, discussions are afoot in the state judiciary about changing the policy that bars deputy sheriffs from carrying guns.
One of the episodes ended in a 22-year-old man's murder at the Chad Brown housing complex minutes after he attended an arraignment. The other resulted in a brazen midday shooting in downtown Providence, just a block from the courthouse, leaving a Pawtucket man seriously injured and courthouse staff shaken.
The incidents have sparked renewed discussion about the courts' gun policy.
"It's something we talk about with the judiciary. ... We want to be proactive," said state police Lt. Col. Kevin M. Barry, commanding officer of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Sheriffs and the Capitol Police.
The issue is under review by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell and the other state court chiefs following a recent meeting with state police Col. Ann Assumpico, Barry, and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association board, Supreme Court administrator J. Joseph Baxter Jr. said last week.
Baxter emphasized that the violence did not occur inside a courthouse.
"At no instance has it been a breach of courthouse security," he said. "Our main objective is to be able to maintain a safe venue for people to have their disputes heard. Obviously, the sheriffs and the Capitol Police are an integral part."
"We're of a similar mindset. It's worthy of discussion," Barry said of the police chiefs' association, whose leadership declined comment.
Sheriffs provide courtroom security, transport defendants to and from prison, and stand watch over juries. As things stand, deputies' guns are secured in strategic locations in courthouses for retrieval if needed.
Barry noted concerns about suspects potentially seizing weapons from sheriffs, but said holster improvements now make it difficult for a weapon to be removed.
Even so, Baxter wondered: "By allowing weapons in, would they get in the hands of the wrong person?"
The no-weapons policy has been in place since 2003, when then Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. William issued an executive order barring anyone, other than the Capitol Police, from carrying any weapons in courthouses. The order came after a security review of state courts by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Before that, police could carry guns in the courts, and each high sheriff set a different weapons policy for that county's courthouse, according to Craig Berke, courts spokesman.
Capitol Police, who carry guns, screen all visitors before they enter courthouses. Staff and lawyers swipe in via a card key, but are not screened. Law enforcement officers sign in and check their guns.
Since 2015, some deputy sheriffs have carried Tasers in addition to batons, pepper spray and handcuffs. The Tasers deliver a jolt of electricity that incapacitates by disrupting muscle control. Sixty-four sheriffs now carry Tasers, adding a layer of protection, Baxter said.
Perimeter security remains a concern, Baxter said, as cuts in the ranks of sheriffs over the past few years have "decimated" the division's ability to extend coverage beyond the courthouses. Currently, there are 179 deputy sheriffs, with 17 added last fall from the latest graduating training-academy class.
"It all goes back to manpower," Baxter said. "They do a fine job. There aren't enough of them."
Due to the shortage, the judiciary has suspended school tours and occasionally has to close courtrooms, he said.
In the meantime, state police plan to work with the Providence Police Department to boost security outside the courthouses, particularly during known gang trials or court appearances by gang associates, Barry said. "We're going to put some more presence outside."
An analyst with the National Center for State Courts said Rhode Island is unique among the states in that the judiciary has broad power to determine what weapons law enforcement personnel can carry in the courts. Most court security staff nationwide are armed with guns, as dictated by state laws.
By the numbers
Sheriffs Division Budget 2017: $18.2 million
Sheriffs carrying Tasers: 64