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Court security topic of session set for next week

By Chris Berendt Staff Writer

January 22, 2014

How the county proceeds in fulfilling a judge’s mandate for tighter court security will be addressed at a special meeting of the Sampson County Board of Commissioners next week.


The board set the date at Tuesday’s monthly budget work session and assistant manager Susan Holder said managerial staff would likely have cost estimates for needed security upgrades for the board’s consideration at that time.


At the board’s regular meeting two weeks ago, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons’ ordered the Sampson Board of Commissioners that effective April 1, 2014, all persons entering the three courtrooms will do so through a manned metal detector. Additionally, operable panic buttons for judges must be installed by June 1, 2014.


He said logistics in meeting the mandate would be left at the board’s discretion.


“Since that time, staff has been working diligently to assimilate some information as to costs,” said Holder. “We are still in the middle of that process.”


Holder requested the county board set a date during which managerial staff could present those cost estimates for further discussion. She proposed 4 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29. The board agreed.


County officials have considered for years the method in which increased court security for three separate facilities — the main courthouse, annex and extension — would be provided, taking into account limited manpower, resources and funding.


The U.S. Marshal’s Service conducted a security assessment about four years ago and a Courthouse Security Team was formed in 2010 in order to identify the most cost-effective means of providing needed security. Possible solutions have included increasing deputy staffing for prisoner movement and court security functions and establishing a main entry screening at each facility, while controlling access, possibly through key cards, at other entrances.


A proposal made by the team in February 2011 proposed to bring increased personnel and equipment to the three local facilities at a “bare minimum” cost of around $400,000. Public Works director Lee Cannady said metal detection/scanning devices need to be located at a main entrance of all three court facilities, video cameras at key locations and card access installed at doors.


Currently, the county has a total of just four full-time bailiffs and one part-time bailiff. Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said this month that the county will have to hire an additional five full-time deputies, and potentially two contract or civilian officers, to meet Parsons’ mandate.


Many in recent years have stressed to the board the importance of tighter court security for everyone involved, and the dangers and county liability posed by not having such measures in place.


In a recent letter, District Court Judge Henry Stevens IV called the lack of court security, especially in the annex, “appalling” and “utterly unacceptable,” stating that it was inexcusable for county officials to continue to ignore security needs that put many lives — those of judges, lawyers, county social workers and a wealth of citizens — at risk.


Board chairman Jefferson Strickland made a motion to recess Tuesday’s meeting until next Wednesday at 4 p.m., and the board unanimously agreed. County manager Ed Causey, who missed a portion of Tuesday’s budget work session because he was in court regarding a case in which he was the victim of a break-in, relayed his experiences to the board.


Causey noted traffic flow issues for people using the court facilities and the potential dangers having the public feet away from court officials and others.


“It looks like anybody up there (beyond the rail) potentially becomes a target for anybody who might have a little bit of difference (with them),” said Causey. “I think I have a higher level of concern today than I had (before) from just sitting there watching and looking.”


“I sat there and observed all kinds of security issues,” he said.


Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.