The elected clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court said she was “really worried” and “taken aback” after one of her employees found herself alone in a Daley Center courtroom when a party to a legal case busted through a locked door last month.
Nobody was hurt, but Iris Martinez — who’s in her first term as clerk — said the incident in Courtroom 402 on July 28 should prompt enhanced security measures to protect not only judges but also the nearly 1,000 court clerks who work under her.
“The sheriff’s office has got to do better at securing safety,” Martinez told WBEZ. “That’s their job.”
Martinez’s comments followed a letter from the chief judge, Timothy Evans, to Sheriff Tom Dart, about what Evans called a “very serious breach of security” last month. In the letter, Evans also called for additional security in the wake of the incident, which he said involved an “angry litigant” who was yelling for a judge before kicking in the locked courtroom door.
Antonio Hammond of Chicago was charged last week in connection with the incident, officials said. Hammond faces one misdemeanor count of criminal trespass to state land, according to state records.
The sheriff’s office has disputed Evans’s suggestion that no deputy was around to respond to the incident, saying officers quelled the disturbance.
Dart’s office also has defended its staffing levels at the courthouses, noting many court hearings now occur online, rather than in courtrooms.
But Martinez said Friday her employees remain highly vulnerable because they are in courtrooms by themselves while many judges hear cases remotely.
That was the case in the July 28 incident, Martinez said. She said a woman working as a clerk in the courtroom was alone during an online court hearing and had to be hustled out of the room and into chambers.
“Clerks are basically sitting in these courtrooms by themselves,” Martinez said. “We have, in this particular case, a perfect example. He walked in, he got into a room where my clerk was by herself. And it was a Zoom call.
“A judge pulled my clerk into safety because of what happened,” Martinez added. “There is definitely a breakdown somewhere. Sometimes it takes these incidents to happen, to prompt us to take a real serious look at what’s going on in the courthouses.”
Some Cook County judges have expressed concern about security recently, citing the murders of judges at home, including the killing in June of a judge in Wisconsin by a man he had sentenced to prison.
Another Cook County judge, Joe Panarese, sent a letter calling for better security measures to Evans and to the Illinois Supreme Court on June 22. A month ago, the state’s high court said it had formed a committee to address the topic.
Judges have panic buttons they can press in emergency situations, according to documents obtained by WBEZ.
But Martinez said panic buttons should be installed for courtroom clerks also, calling it a “crucially important” step for her employees.
“Their safety is as important as the judges’ safety,” she said. “We have to do better.”
Although the man who broke into the Daley Center courtroom was subdued before causing harm to anyone, Martinez said the July 28 incident disturbed her.
“It really worried me to hear what happened,” she said. “There are a lot of mental health issues that are out there. When I heard what happened, I was really taken aback.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.