Collins, Crabtree debate courthouse safety
While the court system is state funded, the commissioners are its landlords. And thus, they are responsible for the safety of its occupants.
“It’s a topic that’s come up periodically over the years,” said Commissioner Mary Stern. What’s giving it renewed emphasis, she said, is a plea from Presiding Circuit Judge John Collins.
He is asking the commissioners to take a closer, harder look at the issue. He thinks it’s time for stronger security measures.
The court staff has commissioned a professional security assessment to help the commissioners frame the issues. It will be conducted in May, at no cost to the county.
Commissioner Allen Springer, who serves as board liaison with the court system, said he’s been meeting regularly with the county’s court security committee. While awaiting the report, he said, they are undertaking “simple, common-sense things that don’t cost any money.”
Sheriff Jack Crabtree wants to make it clear that the courthouse already has an extensive security system in place. And he ought to know, as his office is responsible for its design, implementation and ongoing operation, working out of a dedicated security station.
The courthouse is also equipped with a walk-through scanner to check visitors and a conveyor-fed X-ray machine to view their purses, briefcases, bags and backpacks. They are periodically implemented as a training and drilling exercise or response to some sort of cause for concern — maybe a high-profile trial.
“It wasn’t that long ago we didn’t have any security at the courthouse,” Crabtree said. “Before the mid-1990s, there was no formal security on site. We went from virtually nothing to investing a quarter of a million dollars annually on courthouse security, so we definitely have security over there.”
He said the proximity of the sheriff’s office and jail, both on site, add another layer of safety. “At any given point, if there is an issue, we can call on additional deputies in the immediate vicinity who are firearms-qualified and trained in defensive tactics,” he said.
The question is, should the county be doing more? If so, what, and at what expense?
Crabtree said he would not necessarily be opposed to the commissioners hiring a cadre of private security guards. If the commissioners want the screening and X-ray machines staffed all day, that would certainly be a cheaper alternative, he said.
The county is currently allocating $243,000 a year to courthouse security. Adding private security to monitor scanning equipment would cost about $86,000, only partially offset by reduction in sheriff’s costs.
Crabtree said he would hate to man the scanner equipment with a full-time deputy. Not only would that be costly, he said, but it could pull a deputy “away from things that are happening right now to wait for something that might happen.”
That reasoning resonated with Commissioner Kathy George. She said she wants people to feel safe, but isn’t “buying into the national hysteria that’s going on, which could result in taking away from needed resources without actually increasing safety.”
Stern agreed, saying she appreciated the concerns of the court staff, but couldn’t support measures that might serve only to give members a false sense of security at substantial expense.
Public perception arose as another point of discussion.
“Most of the people in the county are law-abiding citizens,” Crabtree said. “People should be able to move around as freely as possible.
“Do we need to balance that by taking precautions? Absolutely we should, and we certainly are.”
But he questioned how far to take that.
Collins responded, “I used to believe, and I still believe, that the courts are here to serve the public. We ought to have pretty much open access. But there’s been enough concern about security and security incidents that we are at the point now where we need to at least consider tighter security.”
He said, “The sheriff’s officers are doing a great job. They are professional and make things run smoothly. But we are still a little vulnerable.”
Springer said the crux at this point is identifying vulnerabilities, assessing ways to address them and weighing the costs.
“We’re probably going to spend a little money,” he said. “But for now, we’re reconfiguring some duties, and looking at lock setups and more camera work.
“They are minor things. My attitude is if we’re going to spend any money, even a small amount, we still need to do everything that is possible and within our control that costs no money.”