Fearful courthouse workers get security training

Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General is taking steps to alleviate the fears of courthouse workers — 75 per cent of whom feel “at risk” of violence, according to one survey — by organizing “safety and security” sessions this month at Toronto courthouses.

A notification on The Advocates’ Society web site lists afternoon training sessions on Jan. 8, 15, 21, and 29 at the province’s University Street courthouses in Toronto, with sign-up information for any “interested parties.”

Brendan Crawley, spokesperson at the MAG, says the security training is part of an emergency management program established in recent years. The emergency training is intended to help staff deal with emergency scenarios such as evacuations (due to fire, natural disasters, or toxic contaminations) as well as violent incidents. The first phase of this program was delivered across courts in 2013.

In 2014, the program entered a second phase.

“This second phase of the training, which we are now providing, was developed in co-operation with local police services and focuses on operational procedures specific to each court location,” said Crawley in an e-mail to Legal Feeds.

The training sessions couldn’t have come too soon, as a number of violent incidents last year at courthouses and government buildings in the province have left courthouse workers on edge, leading to calls for heightened security.

On March 28, Chamjit Singh Bassi passed through an entrance reserved for lawyers and courthouse staff at the Brapmpton, Ont., courthouse carrying a concealed pistol in his jacket. He fired on police, wounding two officers before being fatally shot.

Then, seven months later, the terrorist attack on Parliament Hill underscored security vulnerabilities at government buildings, after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was on ceremonial sentry duty at the Canadian National War Memorial and then entered the Centre Block to continue his shooting spree.

The immediate aftermath of the Parliament Hill incident resulted in calls for heightened security measures. In Toronto, then-deputy mayor Norm Kelly announced a review of safety protocols at sensitive sites, while Police Chief Bill Blair announced stepped-up police presence at courthouses and government buildings.

These reassurances seem to have done little to allay the fears of courthouse workers. In late November, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 5,300 workers at 167 courthouses, released a survey that found 75 per cent of respondents felt their safety was at least partially compromised while on the job.

Almost half of the 632 respondents said they had “experience frightfulness” on up to three occasions over the past five years due to having witnessed threats or assaults.

“[Employees] will tell you that while shootings might be rare, violence in courthouses is not,” said OPSEU President Smokey Thomas in a statement released with the survey. “Courthouse workers in Ontario face many types of threats — often aimed at workers personally — such as verbal abuse, threats, and assaults.”

The report offers several recommendations, including the mandatory use of security personnel at all entrances; enhanced security procedures near entrances and in parking lots; enhanced procedures around movement within courthouses; and increased use of metal detectors and cameras.

The report also recommends a review for the 71 per cent of courthouses that currently do not have an emergency plan in place for “dangerous persons,” as well as increased training for courthouse workers — something the MAG is no doubt addressing with this month’s safety and security sessions.

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