This old courthouse
NEWARK, Ohio—The fatal shooting at a federal courthouse in Nevada that killed a security officer and wounded a US marshal in January highlighted the vulnerabilities of America’s courthouses and the need to improve security. Often, these buildings are older structures which present unique problems.
Futher, the issue of protecting courthouses isn’t simply a matter for big cities. Tim Bubb president of Licking County Board of Commissioners, said even here in this traditionally agricultural county just east of Columbus, with a population of 150,000, they had reason to be concerned. “Because we’re a growing county, the demand on our court has grown,” said Bubb. “We’ve seen an influx of crime in the region and we’re starting to see more serious crime and drug activity and some gang relationships that have spilled over into our county,” Bubb said.
The iconic Licking County courthouse is an ornate structure built in 1876 with a total of eight main entrances, all of which were unsecured. “Generally speaking, judges were becoming uncomfortable that the courthouse was so wide open,” he said. In addition to having multiple ingress points, there were no screening policies or security personnel, other than armed bailiffs who were charged with maintaining courtroom security. “We asked the Supreme Court of Ohio for recommendations and weren’t surprised that they said we had too many open doors that were unattended and if someone meant harm, they had pretty easy access,” Bubb said.
The courthouse reduced the number of entrances down to two and alarmed the remaining doors, using them only for emergency fire exits. The courthouse designated one of the remaining two entrances for public and staff use and the other for prisoner entrance.
The public entrance is equipped with a magnetometer and x-ray machine that are manned by three civilian personnel, who are former law enforcement officers. “A three-person security staff was as thin as we could go and it was difficult to do this in a budget crisis year,” he said, “but by employing civilian security as opposed to a sheriff, we saved money.”
The entrance for prisoners is not attended, but those charged with transporting prisoners must enter an access code to enter the building. “We had a special entrance put in so prisoners are not entering the courthouse the same door as the public,” he said.
In addition, the courthouse added video cameras on the exterior of the building.
But putting these measures in place was not an easy task. Bubb said there had been discussion about improving security for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that the commissioners began to take action. The critical factor to getting this project underway, he said, was to directly involve all stakeholders.
“The key was that we put our arms around everybody who were players in the courthouse and used the building,” he said. “Judges and probation officers were invited along with architects for their input and maintenance people – so we got everyone in the same room.”
Bubb said it was especially important to involve an architect in the project to maintain the historical integrity of the courthouse. “We included an architect who had helped with modifications to the courthouse to adapt it … and bring an 1876 building into contemporary use,” he said. “We discussed hardwiring, but that’s hard in old buildings with three-foot walls.” Instead, Bubb said they are considering using a wireless system for future upgrades so as not to harm the structure.
Because the county was suffering from budget constraints, the investment in the project was limited and those in charge had to be a little creative with its security solutions. For example, they were able to locate a surplus x-ray machine from another county that wasn’t currently in use.
And a year after the upgrade, Bubb said the transition has been fairly smooth. “We’ve evolved to a higher degree of security and taking it more seriously and tightening the edges through secure entrances and screening,” he said. “We’ve confiscated a few knives, but haven’t had any serious incidents and those who are inclined to carry weapons, hopefully this will cause them to pause because we’re not so wide open and they will be screened.”