A gunman opened fire in the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Del., on Feb. 11, killing two women and injuring two police officers. Police shot and killed the man, identified as Thomas Matusiewicz, whose son may have been embroiled in a custody dispute with one of the victims, according to The News Journal in Wilmington.
This latest violent attack at a courthouse came about a week after Texas prosecutor Mark Hasse was gunned down and as President Obama and congressional leaders renewed the debate over gun control. Steven Swensen, a former U.S. marshal and founder of the Center for Judicial and Executive Security in Saint Paul, Minn., is working with the National Center for State Courts in assessing safety at courthouses across the nation.He talked to The National Law Journal about the shooting in Delawareand about why violent incidents are increasing despite a renewed focus on safety.
The remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.
This is the latest shooting to take place at or near a courthouse. In recent weeks, a local prosecutor in Kaufman County, Texas, was shot and killed as he walked to his car in the parking lot of the courthouse. In San Diego, an attorney's client attacked him with a razor in the courtroom. Is there a surge in these incidents despite an increase in courthouse security over the past few years?
Swenson: From 2000 and 2009, we had 78 courthouse attacks, bombings and arson attacks. In the last three years, we had 38, so we're averaging 13 a year now, which puts us on pace for 130 for this decade, which is almost a 40 percent increase in the last decade.
What do you attribute this increase to?
You've got the highly charged emotional eventsthe family court domestic situations where people feel backed into a corner and have triggering events. With certain groups, like antigovernment domestic extremists, there's more of a forum to promote their causes and find people of like beliefs and ideologies. In the 1980s and '90s it wasn't as easy to do this. Now you go on the Internet and you find people with the same complaints and same issues you have.
What's your general reaction to the shooting in Delaware?
I'm not really surprised. From what I know, it seems to involve a family court domestic situation. I'm not sure about the shooter's criminal history, but in past incidents the persons involved in domestic violence in family courts don't have a criminal record per se. So they're not a traditional threat source, like street gangs, terrorists or criminals. Nontraditional threat sources are regular citizens who for whatever reason resort to this type of violence. Maybe it's the last resort, or they're pushed into a situation where they feel out of control and this is the way they respondthey lash out violently.
Monday's shooting occurred in the lobby area of the courthouse, with metal detectors and security personnel present. What else could have been done in a situation like that?
The security screening system worked as designed: The person was prevented from getting in the courthouse and committing more violence. He stopped at the screening station and that's where he was engaged. The security screening system is the O.K. Corralbecause when setting up to detect weapons and prevent them from getting into the courthouse, you'll encounter violent individuals. They realize they won't be able to get any further, so that's where they go ahead and start shooting.
What I promoteand what's been promoted by the Secret Service during the 1990s and the U.S. marshalsis protective intelligence and threat management. What we do is identify threat sources. Through studies and research, we determine what are inappropriate communications or indicators of violent behavior. Inappropriate communications can be behavior, actions, wordsspoken or writtenthat are potential pre-indicators of violent behaviors.