Leader Blues

Monday, August 27, 2007

TOP STORY >>Courts taking measures to increase security soon

By JEFFREY SMITH
Leader staff writer

Court buildings in the area will have added security next year.

The Arkansas Supreme Court is requiring every county to create a local security and emergency-preparedness advisory committee for county and local court facilities to improve security and emergency plans by Jan. 1.

The committee is co-chaired by an administrative and county judge, as well as district court judges, city and county executive officers, law enforcement officers, local preparedness officials and a member of the public.

They will create a plan dealing with security issues such as personnel and training, controlled access to court buildings with locks and alarms, employee identification, communications, after-hours security, incident reporting and firearms policy. They will offer their recommendations to the state Supreme Court for approval.

Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney Lona McCastlain said, “I think it is an excellent thing, something that is a long-time coming. We have very little security here, and this emphasizes the need for it. It encourages counties to implement security measures which ensure safety to court personnel and the public.

“We have had incidents in the past with prisoners in the courtroom and in the hallways. The way the courthouse is built makes it difficult to ensure safety. Security has been a concern for a long time here. The court is adding cameras to the hallways. The courtroom only has bailiffs and officers when a prisoner in custody is on trial,” McCastlain said.

Lonoke County Circuit Judge Barbara Elmore said, “With the issues in my courtroom — divorces, child custody and protection orders — these cases are very close to the heart. Tempers and emotions can run very high. This is why courtroom safety is important.”

Lonoke County is in the early stages of creating a uniform plan for security and emergency response at court facilities.
“We have installed a security system at entrances to the courtroom and judge’s chambers. Bailiffs and court staff have been trained to used metal detectors,” said Lonoke County Administrative Judge Phillip Whitaker.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Van Smith said, “The committee is working on an assessment of all the buildings and the security needs at the Pulaski County Courthouse and all 10 district courts. Each facility is different and there will be plans made for each one.”

Work on security is underway at the Pulaski County Courthouse by adding bailiffs in the courtroom, installing metal detectors at entrances, having radios for communication and panic buttons for judges in the courtroom.

“We are ahead of the game with security, but there is still work needed,” Smith added.

Smith said the state Supreme Court pushed the new emergency plans after the Atlanta courthouse shooting in 2005, when a judge and two other people were killed.

“Citizens believe a court should be a safe place,” he said. “We want to ensure it is safe for the litigants, witnesses, staff workers and court members.”

Pulaski County’s rough draft of the security plan will be submitted to the quorum court and local city councils for review before submitting the plan to the state Supreme Court. On Sept. 6, there will be a seminar in Little Rock on court-facilities security for county judges.