District judge demands more courthouse security

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Chief District Judge Teddy Hartley is threatening to withhold security equipment from the county unless his demand is met for more deputies on courthouse duty.

The judge is taking his case to the Curry County Commission Tuesday.

The commission is expected to consider closing all but the south entrance to the courthouse, creating a secured entrance to screen visitors before they gain access to courts on upper levels.

Courthouse Security Committee Chairman Caleb Chandler said the committee decided not to bring forth the issue of more deputies being assigned until the committee has evaluated it more closely.

But Hartley, a member of the committee, said he plans to tell the commission he wants three full-time sheriff’s deputies at his disposal to secure courts and staff proceedings — a legally mandated responsibility he says the county has shirked.

“The county has only let us have one deputy, we’re asking for three…we’re asking for that at a minimum,” the judge said. “I think something needs to be done, we’ve been piddling with it for months.”

“I’m discouraged that I don’t think (the county’s) trying to do their part. They hide behind the issue of money and that’s not discretionary. They have to do it, they have to feed the baby.”

Deputies are needed at civil, domestic violence and criminal proceedings to quell potential violence and to protect staff and visitors, Hartley said.

Hartley said he would only be willing to loan the county the court’s X-ray machine and metal detector if they provide him the deputies he has demanded.

“The court had to go to Administrative Offices of the Courts to get the money to buy that when it was the duty of the county to get that machine,” he said. “I will loan it to them, but if they want to use our machine, they can man it and give us three deputies.”

County Manager Lance Pyle said there is no money in the budget for an additional three deputies. Pyle said providing more deputies would force the county to dip into it’s budget reserves. And, Pyle said, the county is already doing just that to cover budget shortfalls in other departments.

“To fund three deputies, the money would have to come out of cash reserves,” Pyle said.

Hartley said the county’s priorities have been misaligned.

The judge cited as an example, the sheriff’s office — while not required by state law — provides full security for the county fair. But, Hartley said, the sheriff neglects the courthouse, which is a statutory obligation.

“I recognize that the county fair is a big event and it’s fun,” Hartley said, “but statute requires that the courthouse be staffed.”

In an e-mail statement, Sheriff Matt Murray said courthouse security continues to be a high priority for his office.

Murray said he believes courthouse security is being managed adequately with an eye towards improvement.

“The Sheriff’s Office supports and is dedicated to finding prudent, fiscally responsible, and enduring solutions for improved safety and security at the Curry County Courthouse,” Murray said.

Hartley has, Murray said, continued his demands in spite of agreements made with the security committee. Murray said the judge has also threatened litigation if his demands are not met.

“We all agree that continuing efforts to heighten security throughout the courthouse is in everyone’s best interest,” Murray said. “However, due to the weak economy and limited funds available to both government entities, expenditures of public funds should be made cautiously and responsibly. The county does not feel, without better justification, that three additional full-time officers are financially sensible or realistic.” he said.

Murray said he recognizes the need for adequate security in the courts when the courts are “in session.”

“As a result we created a full-time deputy position, whose sole responsibility is to provide security to the courts and the courthouse,” Murray said. “In addition, other deputies are utilized when requested by the court and during all major trials.”

The sheriff’s office has 10 patrol deputies covering the county between two shifts. Additionally there are five transport officers who handle inmate transportation and extraditions. Murray said they are available to the courts during the day.

Hartley said he would hesitate to threaten litigation, but, “If we can’t see eye-to-eye somewhere down the road, it may be that it’s my duty to have somebody else look at it.

“I don’t want to threaten to sue anybody … I’ve had difficulties in my opinion getting the county to agree with some of my suggestions,” said Hartley, “and it might be somewhere down the line that an independent set of eyes might need to look at this.”

Hartley said he wants to eventually see a new judicial complex built that would house courts and area law enforcement under one roof.

“We are concerned and have been for some period of time about what we consider appropriate courthouse security,” Hartley said.

“We need a courthouse dedicated to the courts, not the county offices.”

Most recent cost estimates for such a project are more than $10 million. Officials on both sides of the issue have agreed the cost makes a new judicial complex impossible for now.