Safety of public, employees topic of courthouse security workshop

Marilyn Tennissen Apr. 24, 2007, 6:00am

After the recent shootings at Virginia Tech and the Johnson Space Center, the county's workshop on courthouse security could not have been more timely.

Currently, citizens conducting business at the Jefferson County Courthouse have nearly unrsestricted access to the county offices and courts. They can even park on the street in front of the building, a practice unheard of at federal facilities after the Oklahoma City bombing.

At an April 23 workshop,the Jefferson County Commissioners Court met to discuss making changes at the courthouse to increase the safety of county employees and the general public, without curtailing access to public offices.

"I think the first thing we need to do is define what level of security we really need," Commissioner Mark Domingue said. "We don't want to make a fortress out of the courthouse. We don't have the budget for that, and the employees and the public don't want that. We should assess what our real threats are, and then what are the cost effective measures we could use to counter those threats."

The court agreed to form a committee to do just that, made up of County Judge Ron Walker or a representative from his office, Emergency Management Coordinator Greg Fountain, Sheriff Mitch Woods, Criminal District Judge John Stevens and Commissioner Eddie Arnold. The group will also bring in other experts as needed to help them decide the best way to use around $430,000 in the courthouse security fund.

Fountain, who is responsible for emergency preparedness for not only the county employees but also all of its citizens, has suggested having county employee wear ID badges, restricting access to some doors and installing security cameras and metal detectors.

One of the main areas of concern is security around the criminal courtrooms. District Attorney Tom Maness and 252nd Court Judge Layne Walker said they often feel like they have to "look over their shoulders."

Rgth now there are 10 bailiffs for courthouse security, and each judge has his own bailiffs. Maness said he thinks the bailiffs could be reorganized under a central control and redistributed.

"We could have two bailiffs assigned to each criminal court and have them rotate to other areas of the courthouse if they were not needed in court," Maness said. "I think we can do that without additional hires or creating a whole new force for security."

The need for courtroom security is not limited to the criminal courts, the commissioners pointed out, but is needed in family court as well where emotions can run high during divorce and child custody proceedings.

County Tax Assessor/Collector Miriam Johnson said she wants the committee to think about perimeter security too when making decisions.

"We are on the first floor and sometimes feel like sitting ducks. Sometimes citizens are not happy about their property taxes, espcially when we are trying to collect delinquent taxes. We have had to call for a bailiff on a few occassions," Johnson said.

Another possible action discussed was to move the Drug Impact Court from the annex next door to the main courthouse, where security could be centralized.

County Human Resources Director Carey Erickson also suggested training for courthouse employees on how to react during a crisis situation.

The Commissioners Court wants to see a plan ready for the summer's budget preparation process.

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