Dangerous crossroads in court buildings for cops, criminals

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Violent incidents in state courthouses sharply increasing the past two decades, even as court building security has been tightened as well. (WLS)

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
The ABC7 I-Team is investigating courthouse shootings where prisoners have disarmed law enforcement officers. While not considered common, there have been numerous instances in metro Chicago.

Violent incidents in state courthouses sharply increasing the past two decades, even as court building security has been tightened as well.

Courthouses provide a volatile mix of criminals concentrated in one place and officers, some of whom are armed. Whether fueled by anger or escape attempts, courthouses are at high-risk for inmate violence.

One of the worst cases in Chicago occurred 24 years ago next week. Jeffrey Erickson, on trial for bank robbery, stole a gun from a federal guard in the basement of the Dirksen Federal Building and killed two other law enforcement officers.

Erickson, then 34 years old and a former police trainee, killed himself on the ramp from the Dirksen.

Erickson was a one-time marine marksman who had been dubbed the "bearded bandit" because he wore a fake beard while committing a string of bank robberies. That shooting occurred as Erickson was being transferred from court - very similar to what happened Monday afternoon in Berrien County, Michigan.

"The fight took place right outside the holding cell at the courthouse. While they were getting him outside of the holding cell, they secured the door and the inmate started fighting with the deputy and the bailiff, and that's when the gun was able to be taken away. He was trying to escape and that's when he fatally wounded the two bailiffs," Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said.

As with the courthouse disarming in southwestern Michigan, the Chicago incident more than two decades ago resulted in two law enforcement officers being killed.

The incident in 1992 was one of six courthouse attacks in just a few months that year.

A 2012 report on courthouse security across the U.S. found that understaffing was frequently tied to violent incidents, and that funding for court security was a challenge in many places.

Authorities in Berrien County, Michigan haven't revealed how the prisoner got the gun, except to say there was a scuffle. It is unclear where different procedures or practices might have prevent what happened.
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