AUSTIN (KXAN) — Building will soon begin on a security booth outside the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, with the hope that Travis County judges will be safer as they enter and exit the courthouse parking garage.
The Travis County Commissioners Court approved the $82,700 cost this spring, but commissioners say they were waiting for the county’s new security coordinator to begin working before the planning, construction and implementation of the booth could be realized.
Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez, Precinct Four, said the move for tightened security at the garage was made “to make sure that our county employees and our county officials, feel that it’s alright to come to work, and that [they’re] going to be able to carry out [their] duties unharmed.”
Gómez explained that the Travis County Commissioners Court first had to look at two issues:
- How much it would cost, and
- How effective this and other security measures would be.
On Nov. 6, 2015, Judge Julie Kocurek was pulling into the driveway of her home on Scenic Drive around 10:30 p.m. when an unknown assailant approached the vehicle and fired shots into her car. Sources say Kocurek was in the passenger seat and her son was driving at the time, but got out of the car to remove a garbage bag near the gate when the shooting happened.
“Investigators absolutely believe the assault was an attempt to murder, an attempt on her life… she was targeted on that attack,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo a few days after the shooting.
Commissioner Gómez said the attack on Judge Kocurek was a “wake up call” for county leaders to address the security of judges at home and at their workplace, the Travis County Courthouse.
“We need to take some steps to make sure that everybody, you know, really feels safe, and let’s get some information and training among ourselves — the things to look out for,” said Gómez.
KXAN sat down with 299th District Court Retired Judge Charlie Baird. He said that the courthouse complex is generally a “very secure, safe environment.”
“The ‘weak link’ in the security system though, was the garage parking for the judges in the criminal courts building,” said Judge Baird. “Because that was a weak link, I think [that] exposed the judges to a lot of danger, had somebody been inclined to harm them.”
The former visiting judge said making this security change is a “wise decision,” calling the addition of the security booth “a very big step in the right direction” to improve judges’ security.
“Judges have very high-profile positions and oftentimes, make very unpopular decisions that directly affect the lives of another individual and also their family members,” explained Baird. “Because of that, there can be individuals out there who wish to harm the judges, and so, you want to make sure that they’re as secure as possible coming and going from the courthouse.”
Baird continued, “Taking this necessary step is going to improve the security for everybody, and that’ll make it more secure than ever before.”
Baird also said that the implementation of a security booth at the judges’ parking garage was overdue.
“You hate to have some type of tragic event, like the shooting of Judge Kocurek, be the impetus for the change that should have been made a long time ago,” he said. “I do think that this is a step in the right direction, but, probably should have been done three to five years before.”
In January, Commissioner Gómez vowed that judges will get the security they need, but explained the complexity of the security issue. Gómez shared the same sentiment Monday when explaining why it’s taken so long since the attack on Judge Kocurek to see tangible security improvements at the courthouse.
“You have to kinda plan for these things. You don’t immediately just go spend money on things and then it turns out that it didn’t work,” Gómez said. “I’d rather err on the side of caution and make sure that whatever money we spend, is money well spent.”
Travis Co. Sheriff’s Office personnel will man the security booth when its construction is complete. Representatives with Travis Co. Facilities Management tell KXAN the goal is to have the booth completed by December.
There are some 30 judges, civil and criminal, in Travis County.