St. Louis judge leading drive to improve security in Social Security hearings

St. Louis judge leading drive to improve security in Social Security hearings

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WASHINGTON • Mark Brown, a federal Social Security judge in St. Louis, recalls spending time in his courtroom with Russell Weston, the Southern Illinois man who later entered the U.S. Capitol and shot two police officers to death.

Brown cites the case to show that the nation's 1,400 Social Security judges can face potentially violent petitioners. He is pushing the federal government for more guards, better meeting rooms and other changes to improve the judges' safety.

Brown is one of 10 judges handling Social Security claims in leased commercial space on North Broadway in St. Louis. Another 10 work in an office in Creve Coeur.

Like the local offices, most Social Security courts, even those with multiple judges, are protected by a single, private security guard usually restricted to a reception area. They are often in commercial buildings without security that other federal judges receive in court buildings.

There were at least 80 threats to kill or harm administrative law judges or staff over the past year, a study in November found — an 18 percent increase over the previous reporting period. Judges attribute the trend to desperation in hard times.

In recent incidents:

• A claimant in Springfield, Mo., threatened his judge and a former Missouri governor.

• In Peoria, a man pressing his claim told a counselor he had considered mass murder.

• In South Carolina, a claimant with a history of drug abuse warned that he had been a sniper in the military and might "take care of the problem" related to his claim.

• Last month, a building in Providence, R.I., housing federal offices was temporarily evacuated after a caller warned that explosives had been planted. The day before, a caller said armed men would be arriving to shoot Social Security judges there.

Brown, 64, the son of an FBI agent, said that he often handled cases of abusers of drugs and alcohol and that mental illness was common among people who came before him. Weston, wounded by gunfire in the Capitol attack, was found unfit to stand trial because of mental illness and remains institutionalized.

"You never know when they come into the courtroom whether they've fallen off their medication," Brown said.

The St. Louis office handles cases from a wide territory that extends north to Hannibal, south to Cape Girardeau and includes parts of Southern and central Illinois. The St. Louis judges sometimes work in remote sites in Hannibal and Cape Girardeau.

Also in Missouri, there are 10-judge Social Security offices in Creve Coeur and Kansas City and a seven-judge office in Springfield. All of the Missouri offices are in rented commercial space.

Much is at stake in Social Security proceedings. The average lifetime payout for a disability claim is $250,000, and being denied can mean enduring hardship. Just waiting for a decision can be infuriating. The Social Security Administration has a backlog of about 700,000 disability claims; in St. Louis, the average waiting time for a hearing after filing a claim is one year.

"Many people are desperate, and often we're their last, best hope," Brown said.

Brown has immersed himself in security issues since 2002 as chairman or co-chairman of the health and safety committee for the Association of Administrative Law Judges. The association presented him with an award for his efforts during a meeting last month in Washington.

The association is a nine-year-old union that bargains with the Social Security Administration for better security as well as for wages. The safety effort became more urgent in January when a man who had lost his Social Security claim opened fire with a shotgun in a Las Vegas federal courthouse, killing a security officer.

Randall Frye, a Social Security judge in North Carolina and president of the association, said that besides additional guards, the biggest need was larger hearing rooms enabling more space between the judge and people pressing claims. He said that hearing rooms now averaged 300 square feet or less, about the size of a large bedroom.

"It's unfair to say they have done nothing, but what's been done is far too slow," he said.

Responding to questions from the Post-Dispatch, the Social Security Administration issued a statement saying that it provides "a high level of safety" in its offices but constantly reviews security needs. The statement said that hearing rooms have been equipped with alarms and railings to better protect judges.

Judges aware of threats are encouraged to request additional protection so guards can be present in hearing rooms, the statement said.

"We are taking appropriate steps to protect our employees and visitors while still providing the level of face-to-face service the public expects and deserves," the statement read.

Brown disputed some of those points, reading aloud from instructions to judges stating that guards "are not to be present in hearing rooms unless their presence is deemed necessary ... and is permitted by the claimant." Brown said that the rules gave potentially violent people the ability to veto the presence of a guard.

He noted that the railings in hearing rooms are a standard 30 inches high, hardly a barrier in the event of an attack.

Nonetheless, he said that the Social Security Administration had made improvements during the eight years he has worked on safety issues, albeit changes they were forced to make.

"It frustrates me. I just want them to do the right thing," he said.

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