A “very serious breach of security” at a courtroom in the Daley Center last week has heightened long-running concerns about safety among Cook County judges, according to records obtained by WBEZ.
In letters to the Circuit Court judges and to Sheriff Tom Dart, the chief judge of the county’s court system, Timothy Evans, has described the incident July 28 as involving an “angry litigant” who forced his way into a courtroom in downtown Chicago.
The incident at the Daley Center came just a few weeks after another Cook County judge, Joe Panarese, wrote to Evans and to the Illinois Supreme Court to call for enhanced security measures.
“The vast majority of my colleagues do not feel safe at work or at home anymore,” Panarese wrote on June 22. “Please do not overlook the dangerous situations that we as Judges are confronted with every day.”
In his letter, Panarese cited the murder in early June of a judge in Wisconsin by a man he had sentenced to prison and the slayings of two family members of a federal judgeJoan Lefkow, on the North Side of Chicago in 2005.
In his letter to other Cook County judges, Evans described the incident last Thursday at the Daley Center in detail.
“I want to bring to your attention a very serious breach of security that occurred in the Daley Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022,” Evans wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by WBEZ.
“At approximately 1 pm, an angry litigant was wandering the halls, yelling and being disruptive. As he approached Courtroom 402, which was locked, he ran at the door, kicked it, damaged it such that he was able to enter the courtroom, which was occupied by a clerk, and make his way to the judge’s chair on the bench. ”
Nobody was hurt, Evans said, due to “the quick thinking of our Traffic Division colleagues, who pulled staff into their chambers and called for assistance.”
In a letter to Dart on Friday, Evans made clear he thought the sheriff’s deputies assigned to the Daley Center had not fulfilled their duties at the courthouse in that perilous moment.
Evans told Dart the litigant who broke into Courtroom 402 was “demanding to see a judge” and the man “could be heard yelling throughout the floor for at least a few minutes” before he forced his way into the courtroom.
“There appeared to be no deputies available to respond,” Evans wrote to the sheriff.
But in a statement to WBEZ, Dart’s office said Evans’s version was inaccurate. Dart’s office said sheriff’s deputies responded to the problem in a courtroom that was not in use at the time, and it was they who resolved the incident at the Daley Center last week.
“A Sheriff’s Deputy who was stationed in an adjacent courtroom where court was in session responded and confronted the individual, who appeared to be in the midst of a mental health episode,” Dart’s office said. “The Deputy and other responding Deputies were able to de-escalate the situation and the man left the courtroom peacefully.”
The Chicago Fire Department took the man to a hospital for evaluation, and the safety of the judiciary was never in jeopardy, according to the sheriff’s office.
Still, Evans wrote, “The main lesson to be taken from this incident is that your office needs to provide additional staff to assure that judges, employees, and visitors can safely conduct their business in the courthouses.”
And Evans said cuts in recent years had resulted in an “unacceptable” level of staffing by the sheriff’s office at courthouses.
According to a memo from Evans to the judges last September, the chief judge had requested and received promises that there would be at least one sheriff’s deputy assigned to each floor of the Daley Center. He wrote then that there would be two deputies on four heavily trafficked floors of the courthouse, including the fourth floor, where last week’s security breach took place.
On Thursday, Dart spokesman Matt Walberg acknowledged there have been staffing reductions in the sheriff’s office, which Walberg attributed to the difficulty of hiring replacements for employees who leave the agency.
But he said the number of courtrooms hosting in-person proceedings has dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many legal proceedings now taking place online instead.
In 2019, Walberg said, the sheriff’s office had about 130 deputies for 150 to 160 active courtrooms at the Daley Center.
Now, there are about 70 deputies for in-person proceedings in 40 to 50 courtrooms, according to the sheriff’s office.
In his letter in June, Panarese also expressed concern about staffing reductions. That judge wrote that some unnamed colleagues have taken matters into their own hands and obtained licenses to carry concealed weapons.
Panarese noted they are prohibited from bringing their weapons to work, but then added that, “Some have thought about disobeying the rules and carrying them into the courthouse buildings anyways.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.