District attorney asks for improved courthouse security

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks District Attorney Matt Chandler says members of the judicial system, courthouse personnel and the public are in danger without tighter security at the courthouse.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

An impassioned presentation from the district attorney over safety at the county courthouse was not enough to spur immediate action Tuesday from the county commission.

District Attorney Matt Chandler said members of the judicial system, courthouse personnel and the public are in danger without tighter security at the courthouse.

Chandler asked commissioners to close all entrances except a handicapped accessible entrance on the south side of the building. He said this would enable all visitors to be funneled through a single security checkpoint.

Chandler said the checkpoint would include a soon-to-be-added X-ray machine to check bags and packages.

Chandler also asked the courthouse be secured until 8 a.m. when offices open and immediately at 5 p.m. when offices close.

“I realize it might be an inconvenience to the public (to only have one entrance),” he said. “But I think that’s a small price to pay in order that we don’t compromise public safety and the safety of our judicial system.

Chandler said currently the security checkpoint is located on a stair landing leading to the courts located on the second and third floors. He said visitors can enter the courthouse unchecked and go anywhere, including the upper levels if they use an elevator to circumvent the checkpoint.

Chandler also noted criminal cases are not the only ones prone to violence.

He told commissioners that domestic proceedings including divorce and child custody are actually more volatile and potentially dangerous.

Additionally, the courthouse is unlocked sometimes as early as 7 a.m. and often remains unsecured into the evening hours.

Chandler said it provides too much easy access, especially to someone with criminal intentions.

Chandler said Curry County is lucky that in 100 years there hasn’t been a major incident at the courthouse.

Chandler cited several recent incidents including:

• A female attorney with his office was followed to her vehicle and spit on.

• Bailiff’s found a 9 mm handgun in someone’s pocket.

• An investigation revealed an inmate attended a court hearing with a hidden handmade knife he later used to stab two detention officers.

As an example of how quickly chaos can erupt in a courtroom, Chandler also showed commissioners surveillance footage of a defendant who recently bolted from a courtroom when a judge ordered his bond revoked.

The video showed deputies chasing the man from the courtroom into the hall where he was shot with a Taser and taken into custody as he attempted to run down the stairs.

District Judge Teddy Hartley asked for an additional sheriff’s deputy to assist with security at the courthouse. He reminded the commission it is their responsibility to provide security for county courts.

“We need some guys wandering around the courthouse with guns and Tasers,” he said, joining an eruption of laughter in the room. County Attorney Stephen Doerr corrected him, making the distinction that, “You need some good guys with guns and Tazers.”

Hartley said he would like to see a new judicial complex built with security in mind. But the judge admitted that was not financially possible in the immediate future.

Commissioners said they were sensitive to the security plight. They adopted a Wendell Bostwick motion to solicit an architectural security assessment to be studied in committee.

“We’re 100 years old but we can’t keep thinking like we’re 100 years old,” Commissioner Bobby Sandoval said. “We have to (take care of security). We don’t have a choice.”

However Chairman Frank Blackburn said he was reluctant to close the entrance fronting Main Street.

“I’m very concerned about security, we all are,” Blackburn said.

“I also hate to close that front door on the courthouse. There’s so many people coming in to do business.”

Following the meeting, County Manager Lance Pyle issued a directive to courthouse personnel that the doors will be secured daily until 7:50 a.m. and immediately at 5 p.m. and security sweeps will also take place to ensure the building is secure.