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Langham: Can We Make Ourselves Safe(er)?

By David Langham

Thursday, September 28, 2017 | 252 | 0 | min read

There will be disagreements. People are very different from one another. Despite our differences, we are drawn together through socialization, in communities that include towns, schools and workplaces. And, as people are brought together, they have disagreements.

Judge David Langham

Judge David Langham

The vast majority of us are able to deal with those disagreements in a civil and adult manner. Unfortunately, there are some among us who either do not or cannot. 

We see the results of those who cannot. In June, a driver in San Francisco entered a facility and shot several co-workers; three of them died. The motive remains unclear. 
Also in June, an employee went through a warehouse in Orlando, Florida, "singling out his victims," killing five coworkers before turning the weapon on himself. His motive is also not known, but the company had fired him, and some perceived that his violence was focused upon management employees. 

U.S. News reports that workplace homicide in 2015 was 2% higher than in 2014. The total volume in 2015 was 417 deaths, which is just over eight per state.

In 2015 there were 354 shootings. These killing and shooting numbers are not identical. Remember, not all work shootings are homicides, and not all work homicides are shootings.

To put it further into perspective, there are 156 million Americans in the workforce. So, work homicides are a very small percentage (0.0003%) of the workforce. However, the increase in violence is nonetheless concerning. 

Judges are not immune from violence. In 2016 a chilling video from Michigan documented an attempted prisoner escape. 

CBS reported that a weapon was taken from a sheriff. Two retired police officers working as bailiffs were killed, as was the would-be escapee. This was not someone who brought a concealed weapon into a courthouse, but someone who seized an opportunity presented by an armed law enforcement professional. Perhaps that officer was careless or inattentive. Perhaps it was just happenstance. 

More recently, in Ohio, a judge was shot while walking into the courthouse. Around 8 a.m., a 65-year old judge in Steubenville was "ambushed." The attacker exited a car and rushed at the judge, firing "point blank" as many as five times, according to the Washington Post.

Initial reporting noted, "authorities still did not know what might have motivated" the shooting. In days thereafter, it was determined that the shooter had recently been involved in a case before the judge, according to the Post Gazette. 

When that story hit the news, the subject of judicial security arose again. I had some discussions regarding whether we as judges are safe, and whether we can be. It is a difficult topic. 

In the midst of this Ohio shooting, two factors likely led to the judge's survival. First, the judge was armed and managed to return fire. I am always curious whether I could maintain my presence of mind similarly in such a situation.

Second, a nearby probation officer was also armed and rushed to the judge's aid. While it remains unclear who fired the fatal shot, one of these two killed the attacker. In response, local officials "added security at the courthouse." Noting the long-standing deployment of "a metal detector at our main entrance," one official noted "we will have to look at security outside of the courthouse."

That is a thought that has occurred to me before. We do our best to secure our Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims district offices. However, our customers face a great many risks both coming to and departing our offices. There are potentials for many challenges in that "going and coming."

I recall a hearing some years ago. The assigned office guard where I was presiding approached me. An injured worker was present for a settlement hearing, but there were two others in the lobby who also wanted to attend. This injured worker had confided in the guard that the two spectators were a former roommate and the roommate's significant other. 

The worker feared they were present to intimidate and that violence after the hearing had been threatened. The worker asked the guard to exclude the spectators. But all of our hearings are public. I convened the hearing, introduced myself on the record and asked all present to do the same. I also asked for the spectators to state their relationship, if any, to the case. 

I proceeded through a long list of questions of the injured worker, as is my practice in such hearings. When I concluded and announced my ruling, I advised the injured worker was free to leave. I asked the two spectators to remain a moment. I left the record running as the worker departed. Before the hearing, when approached regarding the issue, I had prearranged for the guard to escort the worker outside to her/his vehicle.

The spectators and I sat in the hearing room and discussed the day, the weather and even college football (which had come up in the course of the settlement hearing itself). When the guard returned to the office, I thanked the spectators for their patience, excused them from the proceedings and adjourned the record. It is possible that no violence was really threatened and perhaps none would have occurred. It is possible that these two found the worker later, elsewhere, and that violence erupted despite our efforts. 

But violence did not occur that day at the OJCC office, nor afterward in its parking lot. The spectators' presence was perhaps unnerving for the injured worker, but the legal proceeding was concluded and the worker was safe before, during and after (to the vehicle). I like to feel that we provided peace of mind that day. 

But the fact is that the world is a place in which we all face a great many risks and challenges. We must all be on the lookout for danger in a variety of settings and potentials. We have to be aware, cognizant and prepared.

Back in Ohio, the local sheriff spoke with the press following the judge's shooting. He expressed several thoughts on the shooting, concluding, "Every judge should be armed today in America." Perhaps. 

I think that is a personal decision for judges and everyone else. However, everybody should be aware of the potential for danger and violence. An article I read recently provided advice labelled “Run-Hide-Fight!”

The author, Judge Shannon Bruno Bishop of Louisiana, explained she had learned at a recent conference that, "When a danger presents itself, RUN. If you can’t run, HIDE! If you can’t hide, FIGHT!"

I thought this apt advice. I have filed it away in my logic, hoping that when danger presents itself I have the presence of mind to access my logic, override my emotion and respond. 

It seems in today's world that each of us would do well to devote some thought to the potential for violence. Where could it occur around us? What can we each do to avoid the potential for it? If it arises, what is our best reaction, our best evacuation, our best place to hide? If we are to react in that moment, and to survive, it is perhaps productive for us to think through potential threats in advance.

Can we see threats coming? Can we be absolutely safe? The answers are probably "maybe" and "no." Perhaps we cannot make ourselves "safe." Not an encouraging position, all things considered. But perhaps we can strive to see the threats, think about our safety and strive to avoid risk. Perhaps we can be more attentive, more observant and focus on being mentally prepared. Perhaps we can make ourselves "safer."

David Langham is deputy chief judge of the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. This column is reprinted, with his permission, from his Florida Workers' Comp Adjudication blog.

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