Three months ago, Judge Doug Parsons ordered the Sampson County Board of Commissioners to heighten security at three local courts. On Monday, he lauded their swift action to the mandate, which could very well save lives.
Starting last Tuesday, April 1, manned walk-through metal detectors were put in place in each of the three local court facilities, the main courthouse, the extension and the annex down the street.
“The system you had the foresight to put in place is working, and it’s working well,” said Parsons, senior Resident Superior Court judge, during the commissioners meeting Monday night. “I have walked through the different courthouses. It is functioning smoothly. There is not a waiting line for people coming into the courtroom. The citizens of Sampson County now have a forum to do their business.”
In January, Parsons and other judicial officials noted the inadequacies of courtroom security, which he said had been brought to the attention of local decision-makers for years, with specific security lapses reported.
Parsons stated that security in all three facilities — the main courthouse, extension and annex down the street — was “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.
In response to that order, the Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed in February to fund five deputy positions and two security officers at a cost of $121,895 for the remainder of the 2013-14 budget starting April 1. Facility improvements and security equipment were budgeted at an additional $265,000 for the rest of the year.
In addition to the seven new personnel at the court, key equipment upgrades were either implemented, or scheduled for the coming weeks, 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.
A command area where court could be monitored was also expected to be part of the heightened security, but it all starts with the manned entrances, something new to Sampson.
Prior to last week, the county had put security and manned detectors in place for some high-profile trials, but not operated those on a regular basis, due to lack of personnel. 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.
Parsons noted that “family court” at the annex, where child and domestic matters are heard, is “the most dangerous.” More security means the likelihood that a testy situation will turn deadly is all but taken out of the equation.
“Now if there is hostility such as someone might be tempted to do something stupid, they will not be in that courtroom with a weapon,” said Parsons, addressing the board again. “I thank you, each of you, on behalf of the citizens of Sampson County.”
A U.S. Marshal’s study was conducted nearly five years ago in an answer to safety 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 subsequent board deliberations 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 from three to two, which might save the county money.
He called the additional half-million dollars in debt service “a big pill to swallow.”
Following that board meeting, Kirby, along with Parsons, county manager Ed Causey, Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, Chief District Court Judge Leonard Thagard, Board of Commissioners chairman Jefferson Strickland and Public Works director Lee Cannady met to further discuss options concerning court calendars.
“It was a very productive conversation,” Kirby said Monday. “My understanding is that the judges listened to us and they are addressing those concerns.”
Kirby said he is more content since that meeting, and as he did following a board budget meeting a couple weeks ago, offered his apologies to Thagard and Parsons for any misunderstanding that arose from his previous comments. He said he knew judicial officials do everything they can to be frugal and his comments weren’t meant to state otherwise.
“Having nearly half a million dollars added to the debt service permanently gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach, so I made some comments during that budget session about having second thoughts about if there could be some other things done to have avoided that half-million dollars,” Kirby remarked. “I was just thinking aloud that if there was anything possible that could have been done I would have hoped that we would have done that to avoid that huge amount of money.”
Kirby said he, for one, is thankful for more secure courtws and already feels safer just one week into the new measures.
“Everybody does feel a great deal of security and feels much better off,” he said. “It went very well.”
Strickland visited the main courthouse last Wednesday and said he heard from several people who were surprised at how easy the transition was going,
“They commented that it was unbelievable as to how smooth it went, not a hitch,” he said. “I could say it went as planned, but it was better than that. It went better than any of us could have recognized.”
Parsons agreed, saying he had about a dozen people stop him in the last month and a half to specifically offer their thanks for what he and the county were doing.
“Most of those people had at some point in time been through family court or a very heated civil dispute. People just walk up and say ‘thank you for what you’re doing.’ I commend this Board of Commissioners. I made the comment before: you inherited this, you didn’t ask for this, but you have now acted and you’ve acted with foresight and swiftly,” the judge said. “I thank you on behalf of the people of Sampson County.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.