Last updated: January 07. 2014 4:42PM - 1808 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentJudges and attorneys were in attendance at Monday's Sampson Board of Commissioners meeting to implore to the board the long-standing need for more security at Sampson's courthouses. Pictured, from foreground, are: Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, Chief District Court Judge Leonard Thagard, District Court Judge Henry Stevens IV and attorney Ben Wright.
Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentJudges and attorneys were in attendance at Monday's Sampson Board of Commissioners meeting to implore to the board the long-standing need for more security at Sampson's courthouses. Pictured, from foreground, are: Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, Chief District Court Judge Leonard Thagard, District Court Judge Henry Stevens IV and attorney Ben Wright.
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After years of discussion, there will be manned metal detectors at each of Sampson County’s three courthouse facilities by April 1, as mandated by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons.

Parsons delivered that order to the Sampson Board of Commissioners Monday night and the board, after hearing from local judges, attorneys and law enforcement, voted unanimously to carry out that order. Needed funding will be discussed in the coming weeks — Sheriff Jimmy Thornton told commissioners it would take five additional deputies, as well as needed equipment, to secure the facilities.

“We’ve had a problem now for years and the issues transcend several boards — you just so happen to have inherited the problem,” Parsons said.

The judge said he was going to enter an order that effective April 1, 2014, anybody who enters any of “our three courtrooms” will go through a manned metal detector. Additionally, operable panic buttons for judges must be installed by June 1, 2014, Parsons stated in his order. He said he would leave the logistics in accomplishing the order up to the board.

“I do this reluctantly,” said Parsons. “We simply owe it to the citizens of Sampson County to make sure they’re not placed in harm’s way when they come to conduct their legal business.”

Parsons, Chief District Court Judge Leonard Thagard, District Court Judge Henry Stevens IV and many others, including Chief Bailiff Sgt. Vernon Huffman, attorneys Frank Bradshaw and Ben Wright, Sampson County Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bergstad and Attorney Kevin Kiernan, president of the local Bar chapter and former Sampson County ADA, were also in attendance.

Judges said the bailiffs did a tremendous job with the resources they had, but simply cannot adequately cover three separate buildings — the main courthouse, the courthouse extension and the court annex — with the limited personnel they have. Parsons read portions of a Nov. 21 letter from Stevens to Thagard, in which Stevens relayed a scary experience in Juvenile/Domestic Court within the annex. Stevens called the security at the annex “utterly unacceptable” and said it was his hope that, through the proper channels, the “long existing matter might finally be addressed.”

“The lack of security in that building is appalling, and unless corrected, will no doubt someday result in a clearly foreseeable tragedy,” said Stevens. “Accordingly, it is absolutely inexcusable for county officials to continue to ignore the obvious dangers in which their inaction places our court officials, including judges, lawyers, county social workers, as well as the numerous citizens in attendance.”

Stevens pointed to the annex’s remote location down the street from the main courthouse and extension building. He called the building “isolated and virtually unprotected” and detailed an incident that highlighted the massive problem that poses.

‘Unacceptable, inexcusable’

At the annex, social workers, judges and attorneys “execute the problematic business of removing abused, neglected and dependent children from the custody and control of their often very volatile parents,” Stevens wrote. No one entering the annex or the second-floor courtroom is checked in any way and have unimpeded access.

“It appears that county officials will not address this problem until someone is killed in the course of doing their job on behalf of the county,” Stevens stated in his Nov. 21 correspondence. “By the grace of God, to date that has not happened. However, today, I and nearly everyone else in that courtroom thought that awful day had arrived.”

Court had just concluded an abuse, neglect and dependency hearing and the respondent in the case was livid. Stevens said it was “palpable” and, as she left and the next case began, a resounding “bang” was heard. Stevens said everyone looked around believing there had been a gunshot downstairs. As the judge looked to the clerk to ascertain from the bailiff the situation, a note was slipped to Stevens that the bailiff was the only one present and could not leave the courtroom. A panic button, located on the judge’s bench, does not work.

“For the next couple minutes we dutifully continued court waiting for a disgruntled parent to enter unchecked through the unsecured door to the room where we helplessly sat,” Stevens stated. The judge, once court broke for lunch, listened to the concerns from social workers and told them they should contact commissioners — Stevens said he was discouraged to hear they had.

Parsons said Stevens called him that night and told him what happened.

“I was terrified for him,” Parsons said.

Stevens said it was time for action, not excuses for inaction.

“This is unacceptable, inexcusable and will subject Sampson County to untold liability when a crazed respondent foreseeably strikes back at a very soft target in a deadly manner that is becoming far too common in today’s society. To continue to blame the problem on money shortages is not the answer,” said Stevens, who said he has never feared for his safety in Duplin. “It is simply a matter of priorities. Sampson County is responsible for deciding to have court in three separate building, and it is now Sampson County’s responsibility to properly secure them — not to provide reasons why they can’t.”

The court security issue dates back years, but has been discussed at length for about the last four.

In an answer to concerns from local judicial officials years ago, a security assessment by the U.S. Marshal’s Service voiced critical areas of concern. A courthouse security team, co-chaired by Sheriff Jimmy Thornton and county manager Ed Causey, was formed at the end of 2010 to identify suitable, cost-effective solutions to make court facilities safer. A proposal made in February 2011 proposed to bring increased personnel and equipment to the three local facilities at a “bare minimum” cost of around $400,000.

Hours upon hours of county discussions have taken into account everything from that initial proposal; to federal grants that could pay for new personnel for a short time before the full cost would be shouldered by the county; to transforming the local court calendar to hold sessions in no more than two courtrooms at a single time; to hiring a firm to gauge the feasibility of connectivity between the old courthouse and the extension buildings. Seen as a possible way to decrease entrances into multiple courts and minimize manpower to secure those access ways, that was quickly ruled unfeasible, with a lot of cost and little reward.

Three years after the 2011 proposal, Public Works director and committee member Lee Cannady said it is still the most cost-effective one on the table. He called it “the cheapest and simplest” solution. Cannady said metal detection/scanning devices need to be located at a main entrance of all three court facilities, video cameras located at key locations and card access installed at doors.

Kiernan said many measures, locking extra doors and installing a key card entry, were fairly simple and inexpensive actions that could be taken. He implored the board to work toward more secure court facilities, for the safety of all.

“If you go to surrounding counties, you go through a metal detector,” said Kiernan. “As you think on these issues, also think about the ultimate goal of security and safety for all the citizens of the county. These are not just criminals with felonies. These are those of us who got a speeding ticket, or who have just been told by a judge they’re terminating their parental rights. You have folks from every walk of life who need to have access to these buildings and, at the end of the day, tempers get hot and emotions soar, and we need to protect everyone in place.”

Judges set the court schedule and the county must provide the facilities. Parsons said it is not possible to handle the county’s business with less than three courts.

“We simply cannot function with two courthouses,” said Parsons, who noted that all three courthouses will be simultaneously in session for five of the next 13 weeks.

‘Notice was served’

Several large windows peering into the Courthouse Extension were sealed with brick recently, a key measure to boost safety until other larger strides could be made. With all Superior Criminal Court cases tried in the ground floor Extension courtroom, jurors for years had their backs inches away from those windows. Parsons said jurors, as well as those in the audience, would be helpless against vigilantes wishing to drive by and shoot into the court building.

On Monday, he lauded the county for taking that step, and said the time is now for those large strides. Thornton agreed.

“This topic has been discussed on numerous occasions,” the sheriff said. “I have attempted to include in (my) budget positions that could accommodate some security that would cover some of those concerns. However, that has not come to fruition. This security issue is very serious.”

He said security issues put everyone at risk, from jurors and those seated in the audience, to judges, attorneys, bailiffs, clerks and defendants.

To barely get by at times when just two courtrooms are in session, the county needs three bailiffs in both District Court and Superior Court. Currently, the county has a total of just four full-time bailiffs and one part-time bailiff.

“It is a big responsibility, one I don’t have the resources to handle,” said Thornton. “It is not my responsibility to provide the manpower. General Statutes require that I provide security in the courtroom, not the courthouse. That’s where the problems come. I would hate dearly if something happened. For too long, this thing has been discussed and gone on without any action having taken place.”

The sheriff has previously said that four additional bailiffs were needed to handle needed security. That has not changed. In fact, the sheriff said, the pressing need and discussions with judges has prompted him to increase that recommendation.

“After having talking to the judges and looking at the tremendous amount of court that we have, it would be my recommendation that we hire five full-time deputies,” Thornton said. “We also need to look at two civilian staff or two contract (officers).”

He said there needs to be a command center, where courtrooms can be monitored on closed circuit TV. The U.S. Marshal’s study already identified the need for tighter security.

“Notice was served on this county,” said Thornton, noting that he, county manager Ed Causey and the Board of Commissioners would be named as parties in any lawsuit.

Thornton said enforcement has been stepped up somewhat since the November incident, but conceded staffing issues tie his hands.

“There is no way I can provide all the resources to handle all these courts that are going on all the time,” Thornton said. “Yes, it costs money. But you can’t put a value on a lost life. You don’t realize (what you have) until you don’t have it. It’s our obligation.”

The board ultimately agreed.

“The judges and the citizens of Sampson County have waited very patiently,” said Commissioner Billy Lockamy. “At this point in time, we’re going to do something.”

Lockamy made a motion to put into action Parsons’ order “at a minimum” by those effective dates, approved unanimously. Commissioner Albert Kirby then made a motion to discuss the matter at a special-called meeting, which will be held in the 15 minutes prior to a scheduled 4 p.m. budget session Jan. 21 to talk briefly about how the county will move forward in funding the mandated security upgrades. The vote was unanimous.

“We have implemented a call to action,” said board chairman Jefferson Strickland. “You have made a decisive action, a positive action and we’ve done something.”

“On behalf of all of our citizens of Sampson County, I thank all of you,” Parsons said. “What you’ve done is courageous, especially in light of these times.”

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

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