Officials meet to define issues involved in securing and keeping courtrooms safe

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

BERRYVILLE --Security of the county's circuit and district courts was addressed during a Friday afternoon meeting of various county and city officials in the Eastern District Courtroom.

While called by County Judge Richard Williams, the meeting was moderated by Circuit Judge Alan D. Epley in response to Act 576 of 2007 of the Arkansas Legislature and an opinion issued by the Arkansas Supreme Court which lays out steps to address security and emergency preparedness in the state's courts.

Epley prefaced discussion with personal observations including an April 2005 incident in Atlanta, Ga., when a prisoner took a jailer's gun and shot and killed a judge and started looking for the prosecutor, then killed another person while escaping from a court house.

Closer to home, Epley stated that there have been incidents of people coming to the circuit clerk's office looking for him, and a recent incident when Bailiff Tim Garrison took a switchblade knife from a defendant standing in front of the bench.

"If I am not concerned about (courthouse security), who will be " he said.

"I have no power to order the county judge to do anything in regard to county buildings," he continued. "My authority ends at the door of the courtroom."

Earlier, in discussing the matter with Williams, the two agreed that only one door should be used to enter the courthouse after regular business hours, and locks were changed so the doors would automatically lock when closed from the outside, with Williams controlling the keys.

That procedure is already in place, with the 911 office monitoring the front door of the Berryville courthouse, and prompting some complaints by county workers.

"I am sorry if this inconveniences anyone who likes to use the other entrances to the Berryville courthouse," Epley said, noting that special arrangements have been made for his court reporter, who is handicapped, to use another door as long as her entry and exit are monitored.

The 911 office provides remote door opening and is staffed 24 hours a day, allowing authorized persons access at anytime.

With that, Epley outlined the issues that are involved, including:

* Minimum guidelines for use in all court facilities in the state, as developed by the Arkansas Taskforce on Court Security.

* Presence of a certified court security officer whenever court is in session and requested by the judge.

* Development of a state security and emergency preparedness plan, with assistance in development by the state.

* Hiring of a director of Security and Emergency preparedness by the Administrative Office of the Courts

* Availability of grant funds from the state to address deficiencies identified as local plans are adopted.

Apparently the 12 officials present, along with citizen John Babbs, comprises Carroll County's Local Security and Emergency Preparedness Advisory Committee, which has been mandated for each county in the state.

Copies of the legislation, Senate Bill 89, were distributed to those present, which included a fire chief, Diane Wilkerson representing the Eureka Springs mayor, Berryville District Court Judge Kent Crow, Circuit Clerk Ramona Wilson, 911 Department Head Candy Bawcom, Circuit Court Bailiff Garrison, Sheriff Bob Grudek, Prosecutor Tony Rogers, and others. Eureka Springs District Court

Judge Marianne MacBeth was unable to attend due to a court commitment.

The bill stated that guidelines for the court security grant program are to be developed by Dec. 31. Deadline for submission of a plan is Jan. 1, 2008.

Along with the safety of court officials, the program also encompasses safety of those using the court system. Epley wryly noted that in reality, potentially violent situations are not common in circuit court, but frequently come to a head in civil court.

The county's two judicial seats, in Berryville and Eureka Springs, present fairly unique problems. The Berryville courthouse was not built as a court room, while the Eureka Springs courthouse, on the National Register of Historic Places, is shared with the city, with the courtroom on the top floor and the jury room and circuit clerk's office on the second floor.

Storage of court records, many being located in the county road department and the former county jail in the lower level of the Berryville court house, are also a concern.

In discussion, it was noted that facilities outside the courtroom are also a concern, including the public defender's and prosecutor's offices, with Rogers noting the prosecutor's office was recently burglarized.

Separate subcommittees were created to address the two circuit court facilities in Eureka Springs and Berryville, as well as the district courts and peripheral offices related to the court systems.

The committee is to meet again and discuss findings on Aug. 3 at 3 p.m.

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