It’s a standoff.
A “Lone Ranger” judge says no guns in his Douglas County courtroom — not even on police officers.
Omaha police officers say no way; they’re not disarming.
The issue was expected to come to a head Monday at a hearing on the fifth floor of the Douglas County Courthouse.
But for all the hubbub — police officers, prosecutors and even fellow judges gathered in a hallway, wondering if an officer would actually be handcuffed for refusing to disarm — the hearing ended with a whimper.
Yes, two officers indicated they would not comply with Judge James Gleason’s courtroom gun ban. But they stayed outside his courtroom. So there were no arrests, no appeals and no real resolutions to the impasse.
One development didn’t help police officers’ cause Monday.
Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz said the city will not appeal the judge’s gun ban, even if all of Gleason’s district and county colleagues disagree with the ban. Those 27 Douglas County judges have indicated they support the sheriff’s security policy for the Douglas County Courthouse: Armed police officers are preferred in case of an active shooter.
Kratz noted that the federal courthouse — unlike Douglas County — bans guns on anyone but marshals providing security.
“Here you have a judge who is simply declaring what his policy is,” Kratz said. “However he runs his courtroom is up to him. It’s his courtroom. It’s not mine. As a lawyer, I’m going to respect his decision.”
Others not so much.
Omaha Police Sgt. John Wells, head of the Omaha police union, said Gleason’s order puts officers at risk. Unlike the federal courthouse — which officials have called “Fort Knox” — Douglas County’s courthouse has multiple entrances and far more people (including criminals) milling about, Wells said.
Wells said Omaha’s police union will campaign against Gleason, who was appointed to the bench in 2002, when he comes up for a retention vote in 2018.
“Frankly the (gun ban) is completely unnecessary, it compromises public safety and at some point I’m sure he’s going to be held accountable,” Wells said.
Beyond safety issues, the union has concerns about whether the judge followed the law when he issued his order. In December, Gleason met in chambers with Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, District Court Administrator Doug Johnson, Presiding District Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf and Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch.
No court reporter was present. And the judge didn’t hold a formal hearing where he could weigh evidence presented by the union, prosecutors or police.
“The judge issued an order, and my organization and our attorneys were not given an opportunity to weigh in on that, which violated our due process,” Wells said.
Kratz said the judge was declaring his policy, not deciding a case.
“Why does he need to have a hearing?” Kratz said. “It’s his courtroom. He can do what he wants.”
Wells disagrees. He said he and many other officers question what state law gives Gleason authority to order a uniformed, on-duty officer to disarm.
Two state Supreme Court “rules of practice and procedure” seem to be at odds on who is in charge of courtroom security. The first says this: “The sheriff shall maintain order in the courtroom.” The second says this: “No person shall possess any firearm or other dangerous weapon in the courtroom or in any public area adjacent to it without the permission of the court.”
Gleason’s gun ban came to a head in the past month in the case against Jarel Wilkins, accused of robbing a convenience store.
Last month, Gleason refused to allow Officers Jon Martin and Kerry Windels to enter his courtroom while wearing their duty weapons. They declined to disarm. The hearing over an evidence-suppression motion was continued that month and again in early January.
Martin and Windels waited in the hallway Monday, telling prosecutors they would not disarm to enter Gleason’s courtroom.
In court, prosecutor Ann Miller asked Gleason to reconsider the ban. She pointed out that no other Douglas County judge imposes the ban.
“Duly noted,” Gleason said. “My order stands.”
The judge refused a prosecution request to delay the hearing for a third time. He then refused to recuse himself.
“I’m not going to argue the merits of my rule,” Gleason said. “It’s been my rule for 13 years. It’s not going to change.”
At that, prosecutors declined to call the officers to testify, saying they would rely on a lay witness identification of the convenience store robber. Gleason said he will take the matter under advisement before deciding whether to suppress that identification.
Some legal observers questioned why prosecutors didn’t call the officers to the stand — and make the judge hold the officers in contempt.
A contempt case could trigger appeals — and force a higher court to rule on the legality of Gleason’s ban.
Brenda Beadle, chief deputy Douglas County attorney, said prosecutors had no guarantee the judge would not have jailed the officers had they been called them to the stand.
Beadle said she hopes the issue can be addressed through other avenues, such as a possible appeal.
Gleason’s colleagues — four of whom gathered down the hall from his courtroom — are mulling a court rule that would allow on-duty police officers to carry their weapons throughout the courthouse.
Meanwhile, Wells said the union will consider court action over Gleason’s ban, such as an appeal or a lawsuit.
“It bothers me that the city won’t appeal,” Wells said. “But if they won’t look out for the welfare, safety and well-being of Omaha police officers, we’ll do it ourselves.”
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