Courthouse security on chopping block

Courthouse security on chopping block

After spending more than a million dollars over the past three years on equipment and personnel to scan and search citizens trying to enter the Jefferson County Courthouse, commissioners are considering axing the program, citing ineffectiveness and cost as the primary reasons.

Hanging their hats on fears of attack by angry citizens and possibly even terrorists because of the building’s proximity to the Port of Beaumont, courthouse employees and elected officials jumped on the security bandwagon in 2008, using the events of 9/11 and incidents at other courthouses as the backdrop for why the Jefferson County Courthouse needed to be on lockdown.

At the time, commissioners and County Judge Ron Walker spent nearly $500,000 of taxpayer money to install a video surveillance system, X-ray machines and metal detectors, as well as to hire a number of retired police officers and sheriff deputies to check everyone going into the courthouse. And as of Wednesday, one of the X-ray machines had been broken for weeks and several security cameras were not functioning.

During a courthouse security committee meeting Thursday, July 21, County Judge Jeff Brannick made it clear that he didn’t want to continue funding the program he called “ineffective.”

“I just don’t think we should spend money on it,” he said. “I think the men who work at the front of the courthouse are all excellent employees doing a wonderful job but architecturally, this building cannot be effectively secured. There are way too many entrances and the fire code prevents us from taking steps to make it more secure. Additionally, you have to look at the fact that we take in $140,000 from the security fee and we spend an additional $375,000 from the general fund for the appearance of security rather than the reality of security.

“If someone wanted to do harm and was determined, our system would be ineffective. The security checkpoints might catch someone who is mentally unstable and incapable of planning something or who might have a spur of the moment violent reaction, but it will not stop someone who is determined to do harm.”

The current system will cost taxpayers about $525,000 this year. Between $140,000 and $150,000 of that cost is covered by a courthouse security fee tacked onto legal cases in the county. The remaining amount is covered from the county’s general budget. And that’s after a budget cut last year; the cost was considerably more in 2009 and 2010.

According to County Auditor Patrick Swain, the county’s general fund subsidized the courthouse security program with about $530,000 in 2009. In 2010, the general fund was tapped for another $475,000 over the amount collected from the security fee. That is more than $1 million from the general fund before the 2011 fiscal year is put into the equation. Swain said the budgeted amount to be paid from the county’s general fund is $375,000.

There are currently 11 part-time employees and three full-time employees dedicated specifically to courthouse security.

“We are on track to be on budget with that,” Swain said.

But those numbers are not a true reflection of the entire cost of security at the courthouse, The Examiner has confirmed, as the sheriff’s office still spends money on courtroom bailiffs and other positions that were covered by the courthouse security fund before the security program was implemented in 2008.

Sheriff Woods said he has at least 12 sheriff’s deputies assigned as courtroom bailiffs and other deputies in place that also provide security in the courthouse. Swain said the cost of a bailiff is about $75,500 annually.

“Unfortunately, the only way to try and screen to keep weapons from entering the courthouse is the situation we have now,” Woods said. “But the courthouse was not built with that type of security in mind. This is a public building with public access, and there is no perfect solution without locking all of the doors and funneling everyone (through one) entry and exit point.”

But there isn’t just one entry and exit point. Members of the Jefferson County Bar Association have special access cards that allow them to bypass security, as do county employees, who can come and go through a number of entrances.

As sheriff, it is Woods’ duty to provide security for the courthouse, and he said he will do whatever commissioners allow him to do, financially.

“If they say it is not worth the money, then I will respect that decision,” Woods said. “I know it is being discussed and we have a different opinion versus some others. I can’t do it without the resources to do it. If it goes away, it has to go away. We will deal with it the best we can. It is not perfect now.

“If those guys up front are gone, then what you will have is no one being screened coming into the courthouse.”

Woods said he has bailiffs assigned to every courtroom and deputies roaming throughout the courthouse in addition to the screeners at the front entrance.“The truth is we have more law enforcement in this building now than at any time in the history of Jefferson County,” he said. “I think it is what it is. Not everyone has been happy with it. We tried to do it as cost effectively as possible. That was our goal.”

Proponents of the security program point to records showing the system has stopped a number of knives and guns from coming into the courthouse. Those records indicate there have been seven citizens found with firearms who were trying to enter the courthouse, but Woods conceded security personnel didn’t believe there was any intent of wrongdoing – more likely someone forgot their firearm was in a briefcase or handbag. In all of those instances, only one person was charged with trying to bring a firearm into the courthouse, and that case was later dismissed. Instead, security personnel escorted the citizens back to their vehicles so they could leave their weapon locked inside and return to the courthouse to conduct their business. There have also been a large number of pocketknives found during the search process that had blades longer than three-inches, but security personnel tell those citizens to take the knives back to their vehicles. Originally, there were no knives allowed inside the courthouse but county officials had to relax that policy after a backlash from the public.

“We can’t say those people were bent on any type of wrongdoing or mischief,” Woods said. “The purpose of the security is to deter weapons inside the courthouse perimeter.”

Ironically, Judge Al Gersen gives away pocketknives to his guests and is on record saying he never wanted the county security system. In 2008, Gersen said, “For years I fought against this. This courthouse has been here for 80-something years and nothing has ever happened inside. I know times change but statistics have not. I believe in the numbers and the numbers don’t support the need to spend all that money and have all this security. You know, I tell our jurors that this is the people’s courthouse. I am just here pulling the wagon. I wish they would have just left it alone.”

Judge Bob Wortham believes much as Gersen does, very pointedly saying when the system was first implemented that county leaders should have just left things alone. He said the courthouse belongs to the people, and their access should not be hindered.

But that view isn’t shared by everyone in the courthouse. Judge Layne Walker is a supporter of the courthouse security program because of the criminal element he deals with on a daily basis in his courtroom. On Tuesday, Walker sentenced more than 25 people to the state prison system for various crimes.

He said he understands the commissioners are looking at ways to cut the budget, but he questions whether they have looked everywhere in the county before the security program.

“Have we exhausted all other remedies?” Walker asked during an interview with The Examiner. “Does it need to be revamped? I don’t know. It makes those in the courthouse feel good to know that someone is looking out for safety. I think we need to look all over the county for cuts.”

Walker said if courthouse security is the only place to cut, then he would favor getting rid of it, but he believes commissioners could find other places to cut the budget.”

Three years ago, when the courthouse security plan was rolled out, The Examiner on multiple occasions easily exploited various weaknesses in the system and left business cards underneath desks, behind filing cabinets, in stairwells, in judge’s chambers and in offices on every floor of the supposedly secure building. That security breach led to changes in the system and the establishment of the courthouse security committee, which is now considering the idea of scaling back the security program.

Commissioner Eddie Arnold said the committee will make a recommendation to commissioners, and one of the scenarios being looked into is improved camera surveillance technology.