Security comes into focus

Belmont courthouse 2

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Local court and law enforcement officials reacted to the Monday morning shooting of Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese, which occurred outside the courthouse in Steubenville, by expressing faith in existing security measures but wondering if more can be done to keep everyone who uses such public buildings safe.

Bruzzese underwent surgery and was “doing fine” at UPMC in Pittsburgh late Monday, according to Steubenville City Manager Jim Mavromatis. Bruzzese was shot in an ambush-style attack outside the Jefferson County Courthouse on his way into his office Monday morning. The courthouse was closed Monday as the incident was investigated, and it will remain closed today.

“I have great confidence in the security provided here upon entering and working at the courthouse, but obviously that’s not the issue. This incident happened before Judge Bruzzese could get into the courthouse,” Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra said. “I guess it’s something we all have to face or at least be aware of — a terrible sign of the times. My thoughts and prayers and my family’s are with him and his family, hoping that he’s going to have a full recovery and be able to get back on to the bench. … We’re just happy for the reports we’re hearing that he’s going be be OK.”

Vavra reflected on the concerns some officials who deal with aspects of law enforcement must take into account in fulfilling their duties.

“I’ve thought about that, but what can you do? Sit in your house all day and never leave? Think about it for a moment. You could be out cutting grass and if somebody wants to come after you, they’re coming after you, regardless of what you’re doing. It’s something you have to be aware of, but I hope it’s an isolated incident and not something that’s going to recur,” Vavra added.

He commended law enforcement and first responders.

“Our first providers are at the frontline of defense for all of us and I appreciate so much the job they do and the risks they’re faced with. I thank them for their service in that regard,” he said. “That certainly is a comfort and a source of confidence on my part, but again you just don’t know nowadays.”

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato agreed that judges and others working in the legal system face risks every day.

“Commons pleas judges deal with extremely dangerous cases every single day, which does put us all at serious risk. The general public doesn’t realize the magnitude of the cases we handle daily. We are at very much risk in the public, especially those of us who are extremely active in community affairs,” he said. “It’s a dangerous world out there, with a lot of bad guys and gals. My best wishes to Judge Bruzzese and his entire family.”

Fregiato expressed thanks for the work of the security guards at the Belmont County Courthouse and said they go above and beyond in the fulfilling their duties.

“We have a great security team and I rely on them every single day, but there can be no perfect protection,” he said.

Belmont County Western Court Judge Eric Costine said law enforcement officials must be prepared to deal with such incidents at all times.

“We are all shocked that something like this, of this magnitude, could actually happen,” he said. “I guess we’re fooling ourselves if we think this is never going to happen, and we need to be vigilant and aware that things like this can happen, and we need to properly prepare for it, because it is shocking and devastating.”

He also commented on the state of security at the courthouse in St. Clairsville.

“We have good security here. The deputies do a fantastic job of manning it,” Costine said. “One of the questions that comes up today is getting in and out of the courthouse. Obviously that can be a problem, too, for security, and we probably need to think about that when they have a meeting as to whether something needs to be addressed about personnel getting in and out of the courthouse securely, safely, so that can be addressed.”

Harrison County Common Pleas Judge Shawn Hervey said he heard of the shooting before leaving for work Monday morning. He was notified by several co-workers and friends who were concerned about him and said “we took some precautions” to help ensure he would make it safely into the courthouse. Hervey said he and Judge Matthew Puskarich previously have spoken to the Harrison County Board of Commissioners about upgrading security at the courthouse in Cadiz. In fact, Puskarich has authorized inquiries about the effectiveness of having just one public entrance featuring special security doors. Although Hervey acknowledged that such precautions might not have prevented Monday’s street attack, he said that the incident has brought home how real the danger can be in any community.

“It’s a tragic event that happened today,” Hervey said. “It’s a reminder that public officials are at risk, by the simple fact of completing their jobs. You have to take a little extra precaution to protect not only the officials but the people in the courthouse.”

Hervey said he is glad to hear Bruzzese survived the attack and hopes to see him back on the bench soon. He also commended the probation officer who shot the suspect and other law enforcement officials for controlling the situation and preventing further tragedy.

Monroe County Sheriff Charles Black spoke to the the Monroe County Board of Commissioners about his 2018 budget on Monday soon after the shooting. He said his budget addresses the need for additional courthouse security personnel and possible changes to building entrances to make it more secure.

“We need to consider what needs to be done about courthouse security. It seems like the time we need to hire (more security officers) and consider that,” Black said. “We need to figure out what moves need to be made, what construction needs to be done. … You now have one security guard, but there are multiple doors to cover. Someone with intent could slide in the back door and damn near terminate everyone on the stairs.”

“Yes, this is too close to home,” Commissioner Mick Schumacher said.

Black said he plans to speak with Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla about his experience to gain more insight on the matter. He urged commissioners to “get it in the works,” because the sheriff’s department will be moving to the new jail site near the airport on Jan. 8 and will no longer be right outside the courthouse in Woodsfield.

Ohio County Magistrate Harry Radcliffe said Monday’s shooting of Bruzzese outside the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville gives all law enforcement and judges cause for concern.

“Once we’re in the courthouse, we’re pretty secure. There are armed guards at the door and lot of law enforcement in the courtrooms and throughout the building,” Radcliffe said.

Radcliffe — like his fellow magistrates Joe Roxby and Charlie Murphy — is a former law enforcement officer. He said they are all familiar with the use of weapons, and West Virginia law allows magistrates and judges in the state to carry concealed weapons. He said many of them often do carry a weapon for a number of reasons.

“Magistrates’ hours are public information, and we are out in the public like everyone else,” he said. “We go to Kroger’s and Riesbeck’s and the 19th Hole to pick up wings. You just never know …”

While Radcliffe believes Bruzzese was targeted, he said public officials often are “open game.”

He noted there are cameras outside the City-County Building and the adjacent Magistrate Court facility in Wheeling that monitor when magistrates and the public travel to and from their vehicles, but cameras aren’t a deterrent if someone wants to harm them.

“It would be nice to have more armed guards around the courthouse, but it’s pretty tough to deter someone when you’re out in public,” Radcliffe added.

Staff writers Robert A. DeFrank, Janell Hunter, Dylan McKenzie and Heather Ziegler contributed to this report.

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