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False alarms rule slowed response to Atlanta courthouse shootings

The Associated Press

ATLANTA- When a gunman opened fire at the county courthouse in March, a deputy followed a new policy and tried four times to verify a distress call before sending help, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday.

The policy, aimed at reducing time wasted on false alarms, was issued in January by one of the people killed in the rampage, the newspaper said.

On March 11, Brian Nichols, a defendant in a rape trial, allegedly overpowered a lone deputy and stole her gun. Authorities say he then killed Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau and sheriff's Sgt. Hoyt Teasley. Federal agent David Wilhelm was killed later that day. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Nichols, who was arrested the morning after the rampage.

In a Jan. 21 memo, which was obtained by the newspaper, deputy Paul Tamer complained to his superiors about the new rule, which had been issued by Teasley.

"I think that it is far more prudent to continue dispatching deputies to office and (judges') chamber alarms rather than risking injury or death to a judge or staff member," Tamer wrote to Maj. Orlando Whitehead, who directed courthouse security.

It was Tamer, in the control room the morning of the shootings, who made repeated attempts to confirm the distress call from Barnes' courtroom.

"It could have been a different scenario," said Sgt. Nikita Hightower, spokeswoman for Sheriff Myron Freeman. "There is no way for us to predict how this situation would have turned out if they had gotten there sooner."

According to Tamer's memo, he tried to persuade Teasley to reverse the rule but Teasley told him he would "accept any blame" if things went wrong.

Since the deadly shootings, the Fulton County sheriff's department has come under sharp criticism for security at the courthouse. Both Tamer and Whitehead were relieved of their courthouse duties last week and assigned to the county jail.

The sheriff's department, which has gone back to quickly responding to all alarms, acknowledges the policy change had been made, but says it is impossible to know whether a quicker response time would have mattered March 11.

The change was made partly out of concern that deputies rushing to distress calls could be asked to respond without knowing what to expect, Hightower said.

Freeman had said he was moving Whitehead to a new assignment to help restore faith in his department's handling of courthouse security and Tamer because he needed a change.

Related Story:

The Lessons of Atlanta: Former Cop's Letter Warned of Lax Security Two Years Before Murderous Courthouse Rampage

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