Courthouse security is job-one for sheriff#8217;s office

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 14, 2006

Last month, an inmate inside the Northampton County, N.C., courthouse grabbed a gun from a prison guard and began firing it around the courtroom, injuring a law enforcement officer. While struggling with officers, the inmate was killed by a sheriff’s deputy.

Last year, in August 2005, a parolee opened fire from the steps of a courthouse in rural Lumpkin, Ga., shooting a police chief, sheriff’s deputy and paramedic before fleeing and holding two people hostage. Ultimately, that gunman was killed by a police officer.

Just five months before that, in Fulton County, Ga., an inmate escaped in the county courthouse and killed the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter and a deputy.

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It could happen anytime, anywhere.

With national cases of courthouse violence on the rise, the Suffolk Sheriff’s Department is aggressively working to keep the Mills E. Godwin Courts Complex safe for the estimated 1,000 residents who use it every day.

“A courthouse can be a very dangerous place,” said Sheriff Raleigh Isaacs. “It’s our job to make sure it is safe.”

A handful of deputies start their days searching the three-story courthouse on North Main Street, inside and out, before it opens each morning.

One deputy works the inside of the building, making a systematic search thorough offices, restrooms, elevators, courtrooms and the like, to make sure nothing is out of the ordinary, said Lt. James Darden, of the Suffolk Sheriff’s Department.

Outside, another deputy searches the building’s perimeter and checks nearby parking areas for abandoned vehicles, strange packages or anything unusual. That officer also searches the bushes around the courthouse doors, an apparent frequent dumping spots for illegal items by people entering the courthouse.

“We find a lot of stuff there we consider contraband,” Darden said. Items run the gamut: illegal drugs, drug paraphernalia, knives, even cell phones.

“Probably drug smoking pipes are the most common thing we find out there,” he said. “We haven’t ever found a gun.”

Everyone entering the courthouse, with the exception of law enforcement officials, goes through a metal detector. Anything they are carrying n purses, briefcases, laptop cases n is scanned by an electronic-imaging device that allows deputies to check out its contents.

“We’re looking for weapons, not drugs,” Darden said. But occasionally, deputies will catch someone going into the building with illegal drugs stuck in a pocket and turn them over to police.

With the exception of law enforcement officers, anyone with legal guns, knives, cameras, even cell phone cameras, have to turn their items over to deputies to store in a locker, Darden said.

So far this year, deputies have taken 20 guns from courthouse visitors, according to Isaacs’ statistics. Most of those people had gun permits; the firearms were returned to their rightful owners on the way out, Darden said.

Other items deputies have collected at the courthouse’s front entrance so far this year include: 809 knives; 167 bullets; 83 razors; 4,973 cameras; 103 pairs of scissors, and 35 tear gas dispensers. All of the items were returned to people as they left the building.

Deputies are regularly trained on the latest weapons people could attempt to sneak into the courthouse, Darden said.

Bailiffs assigned to each courtroom are tasked with keeping that part of the building secure. They aren’t just randomly sent to the courtrooms, Darden said.

In the days leading up to the trial, the sheriff’s office has reviewed dockets, red-flagged those cases that are likely to draw large or emotional crowds and allocated personnel accordingly.

For example, if a gang member or someone convicted of murder is about to be sentenced, extra bailiffs will be put into that courtroom, Darden said.

“People come to court because there has been some sort of dispute and both sides have opposing views,” he said. “The inmates coming into the building are in custody and secure. The people coming into the courtroom are the ones we are watching.”

Depending upon the people involved, civil cases, such as divorces or child custody hearings, could be as big a security risk as a high-profile murder sentencing, Darden said.

The sheriff’s office has security plans in place that would be launched immediately if something were to happen in the courthouse, Darden said.

His department and the courts building is recognized around Virginia as a “gold standard of security,” Isaacs said.

More than a dozen sheriff’s department officials and courthouse administrators have toured or even trained on equipment used in Suffolk.

“We are getting more and more requests to tour this facility,” Isaacs said. A sheriff from northeastern North Carolina toured the building within the past few weeks.

Isaacs, who is president of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association this year, has named Darden to the organization’s task force that works to improve courthouse security around the Commonwealth. At a locality’s request, the task force will visit, assess the site, and issue recommendations it believes would strengthen the courthouse security.