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Constant vigilance: The challenges of courthouse security

by: KATIE WILSON, SPOTLIGHT PHOTO - The river side of the Columbia County Courthouse is now locked, accessible only to employees, following rec-ommendations from the Courthouse Security Committee.  spotlight photo: KATIE WILSONBomb threats, shootings, fights, prisoner escapes: all have happened at least once in most United States courthouses.

While technology has given courthouses the capacity to minimize dangerous threats, security continues to be an issue.

More than 20 Oregon courthouses were targeted by bomb threat calls Nov 19. Though no devices were found, court operations ground to a halt and 22 courthouses were evacuated.

Columbia County was not mentioned in any of the threats, but the incident served as a reminder to always be vigilant, said County Commissioner Tony Hyde. It also coincided with a decision by the Courthouse Security Committee to change where visitors can park and enter the building.

Visitors previously had the option to enter from the river side of the courthouse. Now, they all must come through the main entrance, under the eye of the courthouse deputy.

“We’ve been slow to get into that (kind of change) for obvious reasons,” Hyde said. “It’s inconvenient to the public.” But, he added, “it’s time we made that move.”

“Courthouses can be places of high emotion,” explained William Raftery, a court research analyst based in Williamsburg, Va., with the National Center for State Courts, an independent, nonprofit court improvement organization.

In the old Wild West days, it was not unheard of for judges to be killed, prisoners sprung from courthouse cells and angry mobs to assemble at the courthouse steps, he said.

“It’s a high-profile place,” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, whose deputies are tasked with providing security for the courtrooms. “You never have enough (security) to defeat every single threat. That’s impossible ... Instead, you try to set up something that will keep people guessing.”

The Columbia County Courthouse is a maze. The newer annex is fittend into the original historic structure. The annex houses everything from courtrooms and the district attorney’s office to a multitude of county offices, including elections and property tax collection.

This usage overlap reflects the increasingly complex role courthouses play.

“You do not see, any longer, the stand-alone courthouse whose sole purpose is to be a courthouse,” Raftery said. “These are multi-use buildings.”

There is also the issue of capacity. Buildings designed to see 100 cases a year may now see more than 1,000, he said.

Though courthouse security measures will differ based on need, traffic and layout of an individual building, one thing remains the same: Any security plan “has to be constantly evaluated,” Raftery said.

Cameras monitor the Columbia County building, and the courthouse deputy on duty can watch the different camera views. But while technology is an aid to security, “the question now becomes staffing,” Raftery said.

There were security cameras everywhere but not the staff to man them at an Atlanta, Ga., courthouse in 2005 when a prisoner overpowered the deputy escorting him to a court hearing, stole the deputy’s gun and went on a shooting spree, killing a judge and three other people, Raftery said.

“The question becomes: Do you have the willingness on the part of people to contribute the money and the man power?” he said.

There have been no major incidents at the Columbia County Courthouse during Dickerson’s time as sheriff, but, he said, “If you go lax (on security) because of that, it’s a recipe for disaster.”