By DAVID SKOLNICK
A melee in Youngstown Municipal Court’s hallway is additional proof that the current court facilities are unsafe and that major improvements — or a new courthouse — are needed, the city’s judges say.
Mayor Jay Williams and Police Chief Jimmy Hughes say the quick response by officers to diffuse the brawl before it got out of control shows that the current system works, and only a few minor tweaks are needed.
“Reasonable people have to sit down and come up with a solution,” Williams said, discussing the cash-strapped city’s plight. “It doesn’t work when one side perceives it has all the answers.”
More than a year after the trio of judges filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court demanding that the city’s administration and council provide the court with “suitable accommodations,” the judges took aim at security concerns in the wake of the Wednesday brawl.
“Youngstown officials are derelict in their duties by not providing security here and to the whole building,” said Judge Robert P. Milich of Youngstown Municipal Court. “You need police presence and a plan. There’s no plan.”
The issue of security at the court, located on the second floor of city hall, has been long discussed — and long argued — by city officials.
It’s at the forefront again after a Wednesday fight in a court hallway after the arraignment of Melvin S. Shaw II, 18, of Idlewood Avenue in Youngstown. Shaw was arraigned by video, charged with murder in the death of Tracee Banks, 17, and the attempted murder of Jamel Turner, 18.
After the arraignment, an altercation broke out among family and friends of the victim and the suspect at the court’s elevator area near the clerk of court’s office.
Within a minute, the half-dozen officers on the second floor were there to break up the fight, Hughes said.
“In this case, the safety of the court was always intact,” he said. “These things happen, but it was covered by police well. We had an ample number of officers and detectives in the court area. It was seconds till we got it under control. I can’t get a better response than that.”
Police officers are on the court level of city hall “on a regular basis,” Hughes said. “Court security is very important.”
But Milich, Elizabeth A. Kobly and Robert A. Douglas Jr., the three city municipal court judges, disagree with the chief.
Officers are on the court level only when they are witnesses in cases, are transporting prisoners to court and in situations that could escalate into violence, the judges say. There are also two security guards from Vector Security, a private firm hired by the city, on the court floor.
None of those guards have had formal court training, as provided by the Ohio Supreme Court, the judges say.
On Thursday afternoon, a day after the altercation, all three judges were hearing cases in their courtrooms.
Judge Kobly’s court had three city police officers and a security guard. Judge Douglas’ court had one police officer while there were no police officers in Judge Milich’s court. A security guard was in the court hallway. The first two judges were handling criminal arraignments, and Judge Milich was with probation violators.
When there are civil or traffic cases, there is no police presence, the judges say. Sometimes those cases can elicit the most anger, Judge Kobly said.
The judges wanted $500,000 in this year’s budget to hire their own security guards. Because of the city’s struggling finances, the judges withdrew that request.
Also, the judges are asking the Ohio Supreme Court to compel the city administration and city council to spend about $8 million to turn the city hall annex building into the municipal courthouse.
Instead, the administration and council countered with a $6 million plan to improve the annex. The judges refused that offer.
“We’re judges and know what a court should look like,” Judge Douglas said. “For the city to have an architect tell us what our court should look like is offensive, really. To do it on the cheap, that’s all bogus.”
“I didn’t realize the courts belonged to the judges,” Williams said in response. “$6 million is hardly on the cheap. The building is owned by the people and not the judges.”
Wednesday’s altercation was uncommon, and police officers did a great job to get it quickly under control, he said.
For the judges to blame the problem on the court’s layout is “misguided at best and manipulative at worst,” Williams said.
“The events that transpired were because of the emotions of those involved. It happens in federal and state courts. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t have absolute security.”
In recent years, the city has installed metal detectors, security cameras, panic buttons and locks on doors in the courts, he said.
Judge Kobly said: “People are emotional and highly charged all the time. You don’t know when it will evolve in to violence. It’s by a stroke of good luck we don’t have this more often. You don’t know what a person’s intention is on any given day. It’s because of the unknown that we’re in a precarious situation every day.”