In the year since a gunman opened fire at a Masontown magisterial district judge’s office, Fayette County’s district courts have become safer.
Magisterial District Judge Dan Shimshock can recall everything about the day of Sept. 19, 2018. He held court that morning, and was heading back to his courtroom housed in the Masontown Borough building to hear the 43 criminal cases he had scheduled for that afternoon. He was in his office when shots started ringing out.
At first, he wasn’t sure what the sound was. Metal chairs in the courtroom scrape or hit against the floor, and the sound is loud and echoes.
The commotion that followed – continued popping and the sounds of people running — left no question that something was very wrong.
After that, it’s difficult for him to describe what he felt.
“It’s the fear of the unknown while shots are being fired...it’s something that unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t explain it,” Shimshock said. “Definitely going through the experience changes you. You won’t forget it the rest of your life.”
The gunman was scheduled for a preliminary hearing and opened fire at the building, injuring his wife, an officer and two others before he was fatally shot by police.
Shimshock said that not only did the shooting change those who were there on that day, but it also acted as a catalyst to change security in courts in Fayette County and across the commonwealth.
Shortly after the shooting, a push was made in Fayette County to make the magisterial district judges offices safer by upgrading the security at each location.
Lori Lambie, the deputy court administrator for Fayette County, said the biggest change has been the addition of armed security guards at each of the seven district judge offices and central court during hearings.
Lambie said the guards have collected knives and even a firearm from people coming to court.
“It’s been amazing what they’ve gathered up,” Lambie said.
Shimshock said he’s grateful to have armed security on hand during hearings.
“It’s the paramount of security,” he said.
Last month, the commissioners approved a contract for a new office for Magisterial District Judge Nathan Henning in North Union Township. The office will have steel doors, shatterproof glass windows, ballistic paneling and panic buttons, among other security-geared upgrades.
Solicitor Jack Purcell said at the time that he expects similar conditions to be put into place for any future district court locations in the county.
Lambie said the staff at the offices have also taken part in active-shooter training with others planned at individual offices so they have a more site-specific plan in place.
Lambie said other security upgrades included panic buttons, new security glass separating the office staff and the public, new doors and cameras everywhere, which was something that Shimshock specifically fought for.
Monitors placed in a judge’s office, on the judge’s bench and in the office allow the viewer to know what’s going in and around the court from nine different points of view.
If a situation would occur like a shooting or a fight, Shimshock said, he could look at the monitor and call 911 with the ability to tell police exactly what’s going on compared to being in his office and blind to what was happening outside his door as he was last Sept. 19.
“We’re learning different things as we go,” Lambie said. “We would like to be proactive and not have to just react to something.”
While many of the improvements have been physical, Shimshock said the shooting also made him and his office staff also became more aware of their surroundings, keeping a closer eye on those who come into the office.
After the shooting, Shimshock said he was flooded with phone calls from judges across the state. They weren’t calling to ask what happened, he said, but called to offer assistance and ask for advice about safety in their courts.
“What happened here was able to be turned into something to make security better in Pennsylvania,” Shimshock said, adding that the incident really opened the eyes of those in the state. “They’re looking to see what Fayette County does so they can follow.”