Safe, secure in the courts

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 24, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Anyone going into the Mills E. Godwin Courts Building can be confident of one thing: Their safety.

&uot;You can know that when you’re in this courthouse, you are safe,&uot; said Suffolk Sheriff Raleigh H. Isaacs Sr. His department has provided security for 1 million people who have crossed the threshold of the courts building since it opened five years ago.

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Security in the courts building has always been tight, it has become even more since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Isaacs said. Few people have complained the stepped up security that are the result of the 9/11 attacks.

&uot;The attack made people more aware of the importance of security,&uot; he said.

Over the years, deputies have reported seeing and hearing some unusual things as people made their ways through the lobby’s security devices.

&uot;We have about 200,000 people passing through our security scanners in the front lobby of the building,&uot; said Isaacs. &uot;The purpose of having an excellent security program, of course, is to prevent contraband materials from entering the building.&uot;

Authorities have confiscated guns, razors, bullets, handcuff keys, teargas, scissors, and knives, among other items.

The Suffolk has been extremely fortunate in that there have been no incidents of violence in the courthouse, Isaacs said. He credits that to his excellent team of professionals, including retired Suffolk police officers, and Virginia State Police troopers. One deputy, Francis Carter, is retired from the sheriff’s department; he apparently preferred the courthouse to a rocking chair, so he came back to work for the sheriff.

Cumulatively, these 33 certified professionals have a total of 735 years of service within the sheriff’s department. The 21 full-time employees average 15.5 years each, and 12 part-time employees have an average of 34 years each in law enforcement.

&uot;Security in our front lobby is similar to that used in airports and most other government buildings,&uot; said Isaacs. &uot;We have duly sworn law enforcement personnel manning the security areas, not civilians. I believe our citizens deserve sworn personnel so that they can take care of any incident that might occur. They do not have to call a police officer because they can make an arrest on the spot.&uot;

Isaacs recalled that one man entered the courthouse last year, carrying a handgun in his pocket.

&uot;It was not a smart thing to do, but he was so used to carrying it that he forgot he had it in his pocket,&uot; said Isaacs. &uot;We see a lot of that… people forgetting they have contraband on them. We have recovered drugs and many other items.&uot;

Once a person enters the revolving front door of the courts building, they come face to face with the security scanner and two or three deputy sheriffs. They sometimes turn right around and exit before the revolving door stops spinning, but some are arrested on the spot.

&uot;When anyone comes to the scanner, we ask them to empty their pockets,&uot; said Deputy James Moodie. &uot;Everyone who comes into the courts building must pass through the scanners. We ask the gentlemen to empty their pockets and the ladies must place their handbags on a conveyor belt to pass through an X-ray scanner.

&uot;Briefcases and other bags, and any packages and envelopes delivered to the building. One new item that Lowther has confiscated is a new item, a lipstick with a knife inside it.

&uot;I had a lady come in and she had what appeared to be a lipstick in her purse,&uot; said Lowther. &uot;I saw it in her purse in the X-ray scanner and I saw something that I thought could be a blade inside it. When I asked her to take it out of her purse for examination, I found that it was a knife.&uot;

As Isaacs noted, the equipment that keeps judges, witnesses, lawyers, and others safe inside the courthouse is state-of-the-art. He said his deputies are especially trained to use the machinery and to be able, like Lowther, to identify as a threat an item that may at first glance appear to be harmless.

Deputies are also trained to watch over the entire building and its entrances. They watch for anyone loitering near the building entrance, for instance. Unless a person has business in the building, he is asked to leave the vicinity.