Nation - Nation Audit finds lax security at federal courthouse checkpoints Security lapses are largely due to lack of training

By Alicia A. Caldwell

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Security training at some federal courthouses is so ineffective that it took almost eight years for some security officers to learn how to turn on X-ray machine software that would detect guns and explosives, a Justice Department audit of courthouse security operations said last week.

In the meantime, fake bombs hidden in packages and at least one gun stashed in a lawyer's bag went unnoticed at security checkpoints last year.

The security lapses and potential threats, the Inspector General audit said, are largely due to a lack of training on basic equipment, including X-ray machines and metal detectors, and lax oversight of security programs by the U.S. Marshals Service, which oversees courthouse security.

"We believe that inadequate training on security screening equipment for Judicial Security Inspectors and CSOs (court security officers) poses a significant risk to the safety of court personnel and facilities," the report said.

The IG audit said court security officers, many of whom are hired by government contractors, are routinely put on the job before finishing a three-day training course and then don't get enough training on new or existing security equipment.

In 2002, the Marshals Service spent about $8 million on sophisticated explosives detectors but many courthouse officers were never trained to use them, the audit said. The machines were either misused or fell into disrepair, according to one Marshals Service employee who spoke to the auditors.

Some Marshals officials denied there was a lack of training and said the machines were "prone to failure, the software was difficult to use" and some courthouse officers just didn't use them because they weren't given guidance on when to do so, the report said.

The high-tech X-ray machines with software to detect explosives and guns were bought in 2003, but the vendor didn't turn on the software and officials at the courthouse were never trained to use it.

"In 2009, we were told that an attorney at one court facility passed through a security check point with a gun in her bag because of (officer) error and the failure to properly activate the automated detection setting on the X-ray machine, which would have detected the gun," the auditors wrote.

The audit also said recurring training -- testing security officers to see if they notice bombs, guns and other weapons -- is sporadic. And individual courthouse security plans aren't updated routinely. The audit cited one such plan that hadn't been revised since 1983.

"Because the judicial security plans should be tailored to the security challenges of each facility, the failure to maintain this document ... increases the vulnerability of court facilities," the auditors wrote.

The report also concluded that not all district security offices routinely report data about arrests and other security breaches, and criticized the Marshals Service for not fully analyzing data that is submitted.

The Marshals Service was also cited for not maintaining basic records for court officers, including medical reports and firearms certifications, and the agency's oversight of security officer contractors was questioned.

The audit pointed to three contracts awarded in 2006 to a company that had previously been identified in a fraud alert from the Justice Department's Inspector General. The company, USProtect, was awarded $300 million in contracts before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2008.

In a written response to the Inspector General's Office, Marshals Service Associate Director Robert J. Finan II said the agency agreed with the auditors' 15 recommendations and said the Marshals Service "would direct whatever action is possible to address the concerns" highlighted in the report.

Published: Wed, Nov 24, 2010