Court Officers' Academy:
New Recruits to Protect Our Courts
By Anita Womack-Weidner
Chief Joseph Baccellieri Jr., the head of the New York state Court Officers' Academy, uses tough talk while addressing a class of over 100 new recruits, who for the first time are mostly women. His speech pattern and directness are similar to a military drill instructor's during basic training. Later on, he explains that he takes this tough stance to make sure his new recruits understand their responsibilities in maintaining order and security in the courtroom.
New recruits at the Court Officers' Academy in Manhattan
A court officer for the past 24 years, Chief Baccellieri has worked at the academy in Manhattan for nearly 20 of those years and served as chief since November 2001. There are 21 full-time instructors at the Manhattan academy and two full-time instructors at a facility in Cohoes. All instructors are certified by the New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services and must pass a "police general topics" course before obtaining instructor status in areas such as firearms and counterterrorism.
"This is a great job," said Chief Baccellieri. "We treat everyone with dignity, including prisoners. We help people, and that responsibility doesn't end at the courthouse steps."
At no time was that truer than September 11, 2001. Court officers from the academy and area courthouses responded to the World Trade Center to help rescue people that morning. Three of them — Captain William Harry Thompson, an instructor from the academy, and Senior Court Officers Thomas Jurgens and Mitchel Wallace from New York County Supreme Court — perished that day. In all, four court officers and one academy instructor have died in the line of duty since the academy's inception.
(From left to right) Mark Hirschman, Estelle
Simpson and Marcus Durham
Established in 1972, the academy is responsible for training officers who maintain order and provide security in courtrooms, court buildings and grounds across the state. There are approximately 3,800 court officers in New York state, with the number growing as new court facilities are built and existing ones expanded.
While their responsibilities are centered around court facilities, their powers as peace officers are statewide. Court officers are uniformed, armed personnel with the ability to execute warrants, make arrests and coordinate the activities of other court security personnel. Though candidates must be at least 18 years old, there is no maximum age limit for applying as a court officer, unlike the police and military. A 60-year-old woman once got into the academy, but eventually dropped out due to the physical demands.
Court security in New York has come a long way. It's been 23 years since Brooklyn Criminal Court became the first courthouse in the state to require screening of visitors. "It was chaos," said Chief Baccellieri. "Lines were out the door." In the beginning, court officers were trained in screening and other procedures by area police departments. Now, the academy certifies its own instructors as well as those from other agencies and police departments.
In keeping with the growing safety needs of our courthouses, officials have created mobilized and special response teams in which an elite group of court officers are specially trained in judicial protection, threat assessment and extracting unruly inmates from their cells.
The process for getting into the academy is long and arduous. Potential candidates must first pass a civil service exam. The exam is given once every four or five years and typically 60,000 to 90,000 people show up for it. The results are made available six to nine months later. Preliminary and comprehensive medical exams follow, along with a background investigation, physical agility test, psychological exam and an evaluation by a review board.
"When you're in the academy you feel like you're a family. When you graduate, you feel like you're in a bigger family."
-Marcus Durham, recent graduate
Three recent graduates were singled out by their instructors as being among the best and brightest. Marcus Durham, Mark Hirschman and Estelle Simpson each waited at least five years between taking the test and getting the call that they were admitted to the academy.
Simpson, 43, was cited for completing the program under great obstacles. A former employee of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, her 10-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a bladder tumor after Simpson began the program. She spent her nights in her daughter's hospital room and her days training at the academy. "It was rough," Simpson said. "I knew I wasn't going to give up, though. I had the prayers and encouragement of everyone in the academy. Our class was a real family." Her daughter, Deanna, now has a clean bill of health.
"You hear young officers who've been here two years saying ‘I love this job,' and officers who've been here 20 years saying 'you're going to love this job,'" said Durham, who was selected by his classmates to give the graduation speech. At age 35, he took a pay cut when he left his job as a retail store manager to join the academy. "When you're in the academy you feel like you're a family," he said. "When you graduate, you feel like you're in a bigger family."
Hirschman, 35, rose through the ranks at Wenner Media, the publishers of Rolling Stone Magazine, starting out as a messenger and ending up in telecommunications and security before deciding to become a court officer. He received the William Harry Thompson Leadership Award. "I did a Google search on him, and the type of person he was, the quality of the man… he was righteous," said Hirschman. "I have big shoes to fill."
Spring 2007 (PDF)
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