Sampson court screening starts Tuesday

By Chris Berendt Staff Writer

March 30, 2014

Years in the making, a more secure Sampson County court system is now just days away.

“We’re getting there quickly,” said Sheriff Jimmy Thornton. “We’ll be ready the 1st (of April).”

The Sampson Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed in February to fund five deputy positions and two security officers, along with associated equipment and supplies, at a cost of $121,895 for the remainder of the 2013-14 budget starting April 1.

Facility improvements and security equipment were projected to cost an additional $265,000, bringing the total amount budgeted by the county from April 1-June 30 to about $387,000, however some of the equipment figures could change.

The move by commissioners was made in response to a court order from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons in January that noted the inadequacies of courtroom security, which he said were brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities and decision-makers for approximately four years, with specific security lapses reported for the past two years.

Parsons stated that security in all three facilities — the main courthouse, extension and annex down the street — were “totally lacking and inadequate, thereby potentially endangering all individuals in each courtroom.” He ordered that manned metal detectors be used to screen each individual entering the three facilities by April 1, and functioning panic buttons be installed at judge’s benches in each courtroom by June 1.

“We were faced with a mandate to work on our courthouse security, and that was not a very inexpensive operation,” said Board of Commissioners chairman Jefferson Strickland. “We hope to open the courthouse doors with a new system in place on April 1 and I have been told by our county manager that we will be ready on April 1 to start with a new security system for the courthouse. We look forward to that.”

The sheriff said that will indeed be the case, but pointed out that staffed metal detectors at three facilities would come at the expense of existing employees at the Detention Center for the time being.

“I’ll be short-staffed at the jail again, but we’ll be in good shape,” Thornton said.

In addition to the seven new personnel at the court, key equipment upgrades would come in the form of cameras and card access readers to be installed at all three courthouse locations, as well as panic buttons within the four courtrooms at those three locations. The county already has three walk-through metal detectors, 12 handheld metal detectors and an ID card system in its possession, all anticipated to be part of the heightened security.

A command area where court could be monitored will also be constructed, but it all starts with the manned entrances, something new to Sampson. So those heading to court starting Tuesday should leave themselves a few extra minutes, as everyone will be screened.

The funds needed for courthouse security will come mostly out of the revenues garnered from housing out-of-county inmates, which would make up roughly $326,000 of the initial $400,000 cost. Coincidentally, it will be the Detention Center that will have to readjust during the security upgrades across town.

“We’re actively recruiting to fill those (Detention Center) positions, but we can’t fill them until we move the others over,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Pope. “We’re trying to recruit as best we can. We’ve actually come up with a couple of high-quality recruits we were able to bring in.”

April 1 will be a landmark of sorts for the county, which has instituted security and manned detectors for some high-profile trials, but not operated those on a regular basis. In recent years, court officials, judges and attorneys have each lobbied the county to take measures to beef up security before something tragic happens, whether it is a murder trial in Superior Court or a child custody case in the courthouse annex.

A U.S. Marshal’s study was conducted nearly five years ago in an answer to those concerns and a Courthouse Security Team assembled in 2010 to identify cost-effective solutions to safety issues. After volleying around several different approaches, all of which hit roadblocks, Parsons made his order.

During the board’s deliberations on funding court security in February, Commissioner Albert Kirby said he was fully in favor of better security in courts, but concerned about cost. An attorney, Kirby noted Sampson’s massive court calendar and the possibility of swaying judges to modify it in an attempt to reduce the facilities needed to two, which might save the county money it would otherwise obligate to fund security at all three courts.

“Nearly a half million dollars added to our debt services every year is obviously the thing that is very concerning to me,” said Kirby. “It has to be done, but that is quite a big pill to swallow. I’m concerned that all was not done that could have been done.”

Kirby made a concession about some of his previous comments during a budget meeting this week, expressing his confidence in local judicial officials, including Parsons and Chief District Court Judge Leonard Thagard.

“During one of the budget meetings, I made some comments that apparently might have been taken the wrong way with some people out in the community,” said Kirby. “I was concerned that we do all we could do because of the amount (involved) — almost a half million dollars.”

Kirby said since that meeting, he, along with county manager Ed Causey, Thornton, Parsons, Thagard, Strickland and Public Works director Lee Cannady have met to further discuss options concerning court calendars.

“I felt very good about the conversation we had,” said Kirby. “Judge Parsons said that he would look into trying to help us with that issue. I think they’re going to be working on some things that are going to help that. I feel very confident that they’re doing that. You won’t find two finer judges than Parsons and Thagard. They are diligent, hard-working and smart.”

The recurring courthouse security costs for 2014-15, in personnel, uniforms and vehicle insurance, is projected at $424,935. In future years, the cost would be slightly higher.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at