“There’s an active shooter at Shimshock’s office in Masontown.”
It took a second for the words to register when a newsroom employee reported what he’d heard on the scanner.
There was a cacophony of requests for police and emergency responders. Sirens punctuated the broadcast of updates.
The way Fayette County’s magisterial district courts operate changed on Sept. 19, 2018, when a defendant shot through the doors of the Masontown Borough Building that houses Magisterial District Judge Daniel Shimshock’s office, went inside and continued shooting.
Patrick Dowdell, 61, was scheduled for a preliminary hearing for allegedly assaulting his estranged wife. Those types of cases, unfortunately, aren’t uncommon.
It wasn’t the type of case that would’ve prompted police or attorneys to move it to the county courthouse where security is tighter.
And that, perhaps, remains the scariest part: an unrecognized and unanticipated threat.
Dowdell shot and injured his wife, a police officer and two others before he was shot and killed.
The whole thing took about one minute, but changed — as it should’ve — how county officials regard security at district court offices.
Days after the shooting, the commissioners promised to sit down with the county officials who run the courts to enact better security measures. In their 2019 budget, commissioners provided nearly $350,000 in funding for district court security.
In January, they voted to allow the courts to either approve having constables perform security duties at court offices, or have employees from an armed security firm fill those needs.
Last month, they approved a lease for the new office of one district judges that includes security measures like shatterproof glass windows, ballistic paneling and panic buttons. When the lease was approved, solicitor Jack Purcell said he expects similar conditions to be put into place for any future district court locations.
As Fayette officials continue strengthening security measures, they’re aided by a local voice in Harrisburg. Longtime Magisterial District Judge Mike Defino Jr., who serves the Brownsville area, was named president of the Special Court Judges Association of Pennsylvania and took office in June.
Defino said one of his goals is to continue working to improve safety for district court offices across the state.
Those courts are the first step in many court cases, and sometimes the first interaction someone has with the court system in general. Hearings in criminal cases are scheduled quickly after charges are filed; defendants are required a prompt preliminary hearing under the law.
Because of the quick turnaround, tempers are more likely to remain hot for defendants, victims and witnesses.
We’d imagine those who work at district courts have recognized that as a risk for a while, and hope that county officials continue their commitment to funding heightened security measures so the employees who work in those offices are not put in unnecessary peril.