Courthouse security hot topic in county

Published 9:30 am Thursday, January 22, 2015

People entering Warren County Courthouse could be checking their keys, phones, belt buckles and more at the door sooner than expected if county supervisors act on recommendations Tuesday from the state judiciary.

Metal detectors are needed on the 74-year-old structure’s second floor, into which people enter from the parking lot bounded by Jackson, Adams and Grove streets, said Steve Markert, marshal in charge of security at the Carroll Gartin Justice building in Jackson, which houses the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

“You have no X-rays, you have no magnetometers and public elevators are utilized for all tenants,” Markert said during an hour-long presentation of photos taken during a visit in September requested by judges who work in the building. Markert was flanked by state Chief Justice William Waller Jr., for the slide show, for which supervisors allowed floor time about two-thirds into their meeting agenda.

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A price quote supplied by the two men via a security firm contracted by the state to provide such equipment totaled $41,120. The price didn’t include revamping wheelchair access to the building, which at present leads to the basement floor below the parking lot. The presentation itself or the fact it came at the behest of judges didn’t bind the county board to ordering and installing the equipment this year.

Markert suggested closing the structure’s main door that faces Cherry Street and building a covering for an alleyway leading to the bottom floor entrance, used often for taking jail inmates to trial.

“At the very least, we need to have that covered, so people can’t see,” Markert said.

Sheriff’s deputies placed on each floor act as security in the structure. Detector wands are used near courtrooms on the second and third floors when foot traffic is expected to be high, mainly during criminal trials.

Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace, among judges and others in the meeting room while the two men spoke, took issue with elected officials talking security in a public setting with government access television cameras rolling. He declined to mention specifics of key security infrastructure at the courthouse.

“Some of the issues raised and some of the technology mentioned are things we actually have,” Pace said, adding he’d meet with supervisors soon on funding. “As for other issues, such as limiting access to only one entry point and metal detectors, these are issues that have been brought up many times before to the board. It always boils down to funding.”

Board President Bill Lauderdale pressed Markert and Waller for statistics on incidents at courthouses. The two men had brought up high-profile shootings of judges in the past decade in Wichita, Kan. and in Atlanta. Lauderdale favored screening people going into circuit and chancery court, on the upper floors of the buildings, but not those renewing car tags or checking on property taxes on the first floor. The Hinds County chancery court building uses such as arrangement.

“Normally, when we expend public funds, we usually have a reason for doing so,” he said. “Where are the statistics that show incidents in courthouses out of the tens of thousands we have in the country? We have other areas that need funding.”

“I’m all for getting some money up to put it in front of the courtroom. But to inconvenience people coming into the courthouse?”

Ideally, three people staff a magnetometer station with time built in for taking breaks, which would standardize the number of deputies in the courthouse.

“It would free up half the deputies standing around that can’t verify if anybody has anything,” Waller said.

Markert and Waller couldn’t specify any grant funds readily available for the county to pay for heightened security when asked by supervisors. Both acknowledged retrofitting security measures in a historic landmark is tricky, as was the case in Jackson and would be the case here. The Warren County Courthouse was built in 1940 and is a Mississippi Landmark. It’s also inside the Vicksburg’s historic preservation district, where all renovations are subject to approval from the city.

“It’s as old as Bill Lauderdale,” Waller joked at one point during the presentation.

The 55,224-square-foot Warren County Courthouse, still casually referred to locals as the “new” courthouse, was built for $375,000 as a Works Progress Administration project. Ornate light fixtures are present throughout the building, as well as soapstone in some of the exterior. Images of corn husks are inscribed on staircase posts and on tower lights outside, which local historians have said resulted from a mixup at an equipment supplier in the Midwest.