The Metal Detector in the Courthouse Basement
Repeated threats of terrorist attacks have not been able to raise a metal detector from storage at the basement of the Municipal-Traffic Court at 727 S. Broad St. Nor, officials say, has the ominous arrest last year of a knife-wielding domestic violence suspect who waited for his estranged spouse outside the courthouse next to New Orleans Police Department headquarters.
"That kind of stuff happens all the time," one veteran court employee says. "Emotions run high .... Sometimes folks come into the record room and they just get into it."
Dozens of convicted felons still freely enter the building daily for hearings on misdemeanor charges and traffic offenses, unchallenged at the courthouse entrance. A civil sheriff's deputy staffs a kiosk near the center of the hallway, officials say.
"We have had members of the public express their concern about how easy it is to enter the building," Traffic Court Judge Paul Bonin says. "So far there have been no major incidents, but there have been incidences of people bringing weapons into the building."
Dozens of shackled prisoners also are brought into the courthouse from nearby jails for municipal proceedings, but the key safety concern among court personnel is the simmering spouses and angry families who show up for an estimated 15,000 domestic violence hearings at the court each year.
"We are very vulnerable with that kind of caseload," says Lucille Perry, director of the court's victim-witness assistance program. "There's security, but not enough money to support (more) security officers. The staff is very skilled at keeping the escalation down ... but what we really need is a good working metal detector and we don't have that. We separate partners. We do all kinds of things, but we do have incidents. Somebody yelling, somebody screaming, somebody waiting outside the courthouse to get to somebody."
"We definitely need [an assessment]," says Louis Ivon, administrator of Traffic Court and a retired New Orleans police officer. Several years ago, he says, a former clerk of court purchased a metal detector but the court has been unable to get the money or personnel to operate the machine.
Each year, judges from both courts appear before the City Council to plead with the cash-strapped city for more funds for security, but to little avail. The metal detector remains in the basement. And the Municipal-Traffic Court today is more easily breached than even the Civil Courts building, which has a metal detector staffed by armed civil sheriff's deputies.
Help may soon be on the way for Municipal-Traffic Court -- from the feds.
Until contacted by Gambit Weekly late last week, court officials said they had no idea about a little-publicized, free security assessment offered by the United States Marshals Service. They immediately contacted local U.S. Marshal Theo Duroncelet.
Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens says he also sent Duroncelet a letter requesting the courthouse assessment, which the marshal will then forward to the Department of Justice in Washington. "He says he is going to move as quickly as he can and come do a survey for us," Sens says. "It will be a great assistance for us when we go to the City Council." This fall, the court has its annual budget hearing before the council.
The federal marshals, who are charged with protecting federal judges and federal courthouses, most recently conducted a security assessment of the new Louisiana Supreme Court building on Royal Street. Deputy U.S. Marshal Jacques Thibodeaux says the service has also received requests for the written site assessments from Criminal Court, the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office and the Criminal Sheriff's Office, which provides security for Criminal Court.
The assessments are not made public. "They are for the agencies to improve their security measures," Thibodeaux says.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the program aims to "break down jurisdictional barriers between federal, state and local [entities]," Thibodeaux says. The program has been around for years, but has escaped the attention of many local judges and law enforcement observers. It likely will be more actively promoted by Marshal Duroncelet, a veteran of state and local courthouses who was appointed U.S. Marshal for the federal Eastern District of Louisiana by President George W. Bush in March 2002.
"We're going to do everything possible to help make this city safe," says Duroncelet. The security assessments also are available to state and local courthouses throughout the 13-parish jurisdiction of the federal Eastern District of Louisiana -- St. Tammany, Washington, Tangipahoa, Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Charles, St. James, Assumption and St. John the Baptist parishes.
Dominic Massa, the 26-year-old WWL producer and recently elected president of the Press Club of New Orleans, has combined his lifelong interests in television and history to produce his new documentary New Orleans TV: The Golden Age. The one-hour program will air at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13, on WYES-TV/Channel 12.
Narrated by WWL-TV anchor Angela Hill, The Golden Age traces the history of local television from 1948, when WDSU-TV aired as Louisiana's first TV station, to 1972, when WDSU was sold and WWL emerged to dominate news competition.
The show covers such early icons as newsmen Bill Monroe, Alec Gifford, Mel Leavitt and Phil Johnson (sans beard). Also appearing are Terry Flettrich, renowned locally for Mrs. Muffin and Midday, and hurricane guru Nash Roberts. Local shows of the period include Morgus the Magnificent, The John Pela Show, Romper Room and Popeye and Pals. The program discusses how the Jesuits of Loyola University came to purchase WWL-TV in the 1950s, and recounts the debut of WYES-TV as the city's first public television station.
A native New Orleanian, Massa says his opportunity to work with Roberts and Johnson before they retired from WWL informed his work. He says he chose 1972 as a cutoff date because it comes before the influx of new television personalities -- including Angela Hill and Garland Robinette. Next, he says, he'd like to turn his attention to either more television -- or, barring that, the history of local radio.