Securing government buildings is a big task

Greg Sowinski 419-993-2090 •

November 16, 2013

LIMA — Anytime a citizen walks into a government building it’s under some level of security.

Whether it’s passing through a metal detector at the front door and putting a purse or bag through an X-ray machine, each person gives up a little privacy.

There’s also the cameras watching and recording every move, usually from different angles.

The world has changed in the last 20 years. While the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the ballgame forever, many courthouses and other government buildings began changing before that because of some high-profile incidents in which people died at the hands of someone upset with the government, none bigger than the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.

Security detail

In Allen County, there’s always been security in the Justice Center where the Sheriff’s Office and Common Pleas Court’s general division are located. No one enters court without passing through a metal detector and X-ray machine, Allen County Sheriff Sam Crish said.

The Allen County Courthouse has had security since the 1980s. The officers are deputies through the Sheriff’s Office. They are dedicated security deputies who get additional special training for their specific jobs.

Allen County deputies also provide full-time security for the Court of Appeals, Allen County Child Support Agency, Allen County Job and Family Services, and Allen County Juvenile Court, Crish said.

Those agencies are places where emotions can flow, people can become angry and become a possible security threat, Crish said.

Collecting child support can upset someone as can sentencing someone’s child to jail at Juvenile Court, Crish said.

In the mid-1990s, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered all courts in the state to have a security plan. Exactly what those plans are varies. In Putnam County, for example, the courthouse remains completely open. Auglaize County closed all doors except for one entrance and added a metal detector and X-ray machine in the past year with the courthouse renovation.

Putnam County Sheriff Mike Chandler could not be reached for comment.

At a cost

While officials at courthouses won’t argue some security is needed, the question often boils down to how much can the county or city afford.

“How much can you afford? What price do you put on security? With budget constraints, there’s limits on what you can do by way of personnel and new technology,” said Judge William Lauber of Lima Municipal Court where about $70,000 a year is spent on security including staffing a full-time and part-time officer.

While the sky is the limit in terms of the cost of what is on the market, Crish said Allen County has all the bases covered. Metal detectors, X-ray machines and cameras are the tried and true methods of security.

“There is better technology out there and with it comes a huge price tag but what we have is working well,” Crish said.

Making do

On top of that, Crish said just the presence of deputies goes a long way toward prevention.

“Having an officer right there, visible in the courthouse, it helps deter a lot of problems,” Crish said.

Additional security is brought in for high-profile cases, Crish said.

One area that’s always of concern that wouldn’t be on most people’s radar is domestic relations court on the third floor of the courthouse, Crish said.

The floor is staffed with a deputy during hearings which can be emotional.

“It’s a place most people don’t think of but just think of the emotions when people go through a divorce, divide property, money, the visitation of children,” Crish said. “The emotions can really kick into high gear.”

Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon said there’s been a deputy assigned to the courthouse for many years and now multiple deputies handle security at the courthouse, including working the metal detector and X-ray machine at the entrance.

Like other counties, Auglaize has only had minor security issues through the years.

“We did this to properly secure the courthouse. One monitored entry is the way it should be secured. Previously, we brought out detecting devices only for major trials or if we were aware or received information ahead of time of a potential issue,” Solomon said.

The courthouse must be more secure and has to be, Solomon said.

“Protection of the public and all employees at the courthouse is the main concern,” Solomon said.

Lima Police Department remodeled its entrance to the public and reopened with a secured door and bullet-proof glass at the counter where an officer assists people. Before that, anyone with a beef, even upset with a traffic ticket, could walk up and bend the police chief’s ear.

Chief Kevin Martin said there was no local incident that spurred the security upgrade but something that everyone was onboard with and believed needed to be done as a precaution.

Just given the nature of police work, dealing with criminals and people during emotional times can cause concern. Since 1999, everyone who enters the department must pass through a metal detector, he said.

A balancing act

While City Hall remains open, Martin said some areas will be locked off to the public. It’s something many public officials, especially those who are purists in the sense government should always be open to the public, have wrestled with, Martin said.

“There in lies a tough balancing act. With a public building, citizens who pay for that building have the right to access but at the same time employees inside have the right to be safe,” Martin said.

Crish said the level of security present today is a good balance. He never hears people complain their rights are being challenged or access to the courthouse is blocked.

“How we have it set up, now, is a good balance. It serves a dual purpose. It makes people feel safe coming into the courthouse knowing there is security,” Crish said. “It’s like going to an airport, you know you’re going through a metal detector.”

Lima Municipal Court made security upgrades in 1997. Since then, anyone entering the court must pass through a metal detector and put anything they bring in through an X-ray machine.

Before that, anyone could enter from any of the three sets of doors, all of which remain locked to this day. Only the front doors are used.

Before upgrades, the municipal court clerk’s office, then with only a countertop separating the public from employees, now has secured glass windows.

“There was nothing in particular that spurred it,” Lauber said.

It was a preventative measure, he said.

“We didn’t want to have an incident that prompted us to have to do it,” Lauber said.

Lauber, who has been on the bench since 1982, said he was reluctant, at first, to add security measures. He believes government, which includes the courts, should be as open as possible to meet the public’s needs.

“The thought of having security, such as we do now, was kind of against my belief that public buildings ought to be open to the public whenever they wanted to come in,” Lauber said. “But when weighing that against one incident that someone could lose their life or be seriously injured there wasn’t even a question that we needed to put it in.”

The only incident Lauber ever recalls at the court in 31 years occurred, ironically, two months ago and it was inside his courtroom. A murder defendant was at a bond hearing when a family member of the victim charged the defendant. Police officers tackled the man before he got to the defendant. The judge sent the man to jail for 30 days.

“He just let his emotions get the best of him which we can’t allow in the court,” Lauber said.