Courthouse security has been discussed locally for the better part of the last decade and began in earnest with the development of a committee three years ago. This week, there was a renewed push by county officials for something to occur sooner rather than later.
That something could be the consolidation of two courthouses — the main Sampson County courthouse and the Superior Court extension next door — with a single entrance. Nothing was approved, but direction was given to come up with a viable plan to make it happen.
Equipment was purchased last year with one-time 911 funds set to expire if not used, but staffing was an issue. A Department of Justice grant was applied for in the fall of 2011 and again this past fall to pay for an additional four deputies to provide courthouse security — the funds would be available for three years — but the application was not successful.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton has said the staffing need cannot be fulfilled with existing deputies, with sheriff’s personnel already stretched over other areas. A minimal amount of deputies to cover a maximum amount of space, three courts in all including the annex, has always been the problem, local officials said.
When confronted with the prospect of providing security to everyone using the Sampson County courts, one entrance into one courthouse is key, commissioners said during a planning session this week. County manager Ed Causey said he recently talked with Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, who urged action.
“He encouraged me to encourage us as a collective body to move forward with some sort of action plan,” said Causey.
Chief Deputy John Conerly spoke to the issue this week, with Thornton in a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Our issues has always been that we have three different buildings with courthouses,” said Conerly. “That just creates a lot of problems in trying to secure all of them. If we just dealt like some counties do, where we have one courthouse and all the courtrooms are there — three entrances being a card entrance for employees and one being a public entrance — that would cut your losses down a lot in personnel.”
However, having court held in multiple buildings, staff is stretched just to provide bailiffs. Factoring multiple entrances into the courthouses, including four at the main courthouse, providing security has been a remote possibility with existing staff unless more personnel is hired or entrances are cut off and court consolidated.
Half the time, there is court going on in three places. There is court held in two places all of the time.
“It’s just a nightmare as far as security goes,” said Conerly. “Our regular courtroom bailiffs take care of security in the courtroom. Inside the courtroom is not a bad thing, but you can go into (district court) and you can go in there and there’s 400-500 people and none of them have been screened before they came in.”
Around the beginning of 2010, judicial officials approached county administration regarding courthouse security issues. A security assessment by the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which identified critical areas of concern and possible solutions. A courthouse security team, co-chaired by Thornton and Causey, was formed at the end of 2010 to identify suitable, cost-effective solutions of making the main courthouse, the courthouse extension and the courthouse annex safer.
Atop the U.S. Marshal’s Service’s solutions was to build another courthouse, quickly ruled out as cost-prohibitive by the security team. Other solutions were to increase deputy staffing for prisoner movement and court security functions and establish a main entry screening at each facility and controlling access through other entrances.
Commissioners focused on those solutions, and said they were possible.
“The idea of making the courthouse and the courthouse extension, turning that into one building by closing off that corridor, I can’t quite understand why that wouldn’t work,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby, who is an attorney. “It could be made into one building by having the (outside) walkway closed off in some way and have just one entrance.”
Conerly said it was a matter of keeping inmates contained, because at times there could be a dozen brought over at a time. It was important to keep them away from the general public as they are escorted to court.
“If there is some way to make those buildings one, that’s going to be best,” said Kirby.
“You and I are on the same page there,” said Conerly.
Commissioner Harry Parker said egress routes would have to remain as is to be compliant with fire codes. He said one of the most viable options would be to complete a second-floor walkway, where inmates could be escorted to the second-floor courtroom in the old courthouse from the extension and vice-versa.
Kirby said he has been to courthouses in surrounding counties, including Cumberland, Onslow and New Hanover, and he knows that Sampson County is capable of providing the same kind of security.
“That’s been on my mind,” said Kirby. “If we can somehow make the two buildings one and secure it, you would end up securing both buildings because the only place individuals could get in was one place. You could have some deputies posted there and that would cut down the number you’d need, because they’ll be filtering for both courtrooms.”
In February 2011, the courthouse security team recommended an initial plan for security measures that would bring increased personnel and equipment to three local facilities at a cost of approximately $405,552 for the 2011-12 fiscal year, not inclusive of all security needs and representing the “bare minimum.”
To date, equipment has been purchased but staffing issues, or building modifications to shore up those issues, have not been resolved.
After months of extensive discussion leading up to the 2011-12 budget’s approval at the end of June 2011, Causey proposed $96,000 be spent from the one-time 911 funds for courthouse security equipment. That equipment was purchased before the 911 funds expired June 30 of last year and, outside of a couple of hand wands, remains boxed up in storage.
Manpower has remained an issue, with equipment available but no one to man it.
Kirby said if criminal court could be cut down from every week to every other week, that could further assist matters. However, that might be a tougher prospect. Criminal and civil court used to be held on alternating weeks. Now, criminal court is every week, Kirby said.
“There was always only two courtrooms going, never three,” said Kirby. “We thought it would smooth things up and lighten the load, and it did, because we had some big calendars. Can we go back to it now? I don’t know. If we could do criminal court every other week and have civil court in between, we would be dealing with one building. It would really change things.”
Kirby said he would talk with Parsons, Clerk of Court Norman Wayne Naylor and others. Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said he would provide assistance.
“This is a crunch time,” said Kirby. “Something has got to be done about this security. Something has got to be done.”
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb mentioned the comments made years ago by then-Superior Court Judge Russell Lanier Jr., who stated that 90 percent of the courthouse security problem would be solved with having just one entrance.
“That would take away a lot of the manpower,” said Kirby. “Like over in Fayetteville, you see people up on four or five different courtrooms, but you know they went in through one place and they were checked out.”
“It’s been seven-man detail,” added Conerly. “You cut it down, four is doable, because you just eliminated a whole building.”
Echoing statements from Causey, Kirby said he heard the same concerns from Parsons and Thornton. Those pleas reverberate even louder with a shooting at a Delaware courthouse earlier this week that resulted in the deaths of three people. Kirby said it is on his mind, and he felt something needed to be done.
“It’s gotten in recent years where I’ve been very concerned,” said Kirby. “I used to go and sit with my back to the audience. I don’t do that anymore. I always sit where I can look out and see what’s going on, because I’m really nervous.”
Board chairman Billy Lockamy said he was optimistic about the inroads that could be made regarding courthouse security. Like Kirby, Lockamy believes the time is now.
“I think we’re on the right track,” said Lockamy. “I think this is something that we need to start on soon, like now.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.