Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Lonoke judges want two full-time bailiffs for security

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

The Lonoke County Court last week decided to hold off on a request for more than $46,000 needed to fully fund two full-time bailiff positions for the Lonoke County Circuit Court.

The positions would be for Judge Phillip Whiteaker’s and Judge Barbara Elmore’s courtrooms.

Whiteaker made the appeal to the court on behalf of Sheriff Jim Roberson, who is out on medical leave. Whiteaker pitched the idea as a way not only to beef up courtroom security, but as a boon for the sheriff’s department. The bailiffs, when not needed in court, would be available to transport prisoners, serve warrants, and perform other administrative tasks.

The funding request was in response to Act 576 of 2007, which requires the Administrative Office of the Courts of Arkansas to assist district and circuit courts in efforts to improve court-facility security and emergency preparedness.

Assistance would come in the form of training and certification of bailiffs, as well as grants to help cover administrative costs of developing a comprehensive security plan, as well as pay for facility modifications, security equipment or other improvements.

Concerns about violent incidents in courtrooms in Arkansas and around the nation sparked the formation of the policy to direct courts on security issues. This encompasses not only bailiff training and certification, but also mail handling, building access, bomb threats, evacuation planning, and after-hours security.

Whiteaker said it has taken until now for the state to “to get its ducks in a row,” as policy makers developed the criteria for bailiff certification, but that the time had come to get in compliance. Full-time bailiffs – now called court security officers according to the law – need to replace the existing part-time officers, he said.

Rather than approve the proposed ordinance, the quorum court instead voted unanimously to refer the matter to its personnel committee that would come back to the full court in March with recommendations.

As it turns out, the 2007 law does not require full-time bailiffs nor does it mandate the courts to do anything.

On Monday, after she had had a chance to read Act 576, quorum court personnel committee chair Janette Minton, said, “It turns out we are not out of compliance, and we don’t have a deadline. We were told this was an emergency, and it is not an emergency.”

Pete Hollingsworth, director of security and emergency preparedness for the Administra-tive Office of the Courts, explained that although the law is not a mandate for the courts to do anything, the sooner they respond to Act 576, the more likely they’ll get a share of state grant monies to cover costs of stepped-up security.

The state has already allocated $500,000, and there may be more, Hollingsworth said.

“As grant money becomes available, courts that don’t follow guidelines won’t be able to get any of it,” he said.

TOO MANY STRAY DOGS

The court voted to form a committee to explore ways to affordably reduce the number of stray dogs that roam rural Lonoke County.

Justice of the Peace Adam Sims, who sponsored the ordinance, thinks that the number of dogs on the loose will increase as the result of the new animal-cruelty law, which makes it a felony in Arkansas to kill a dog unless it is a threat to livestock or poultry.

“They will make an example of somebody, sometime,” Sims predicted.

Lonoke County resident Rose Klein said over the past five years she has taken in a number of strays, tried to place them in homes, or had them euthanized, but the financial burden has become too much to bear. She now gets calls from folks hoping she will take a stray off their hands.

“I have been inundated with stray animals; I am asking for help, a solution,” Klein told the court. “I want the county to find a solution. There are a lot of people who are very frustrated by these dogs dumped and wandering around and there are no spay and neuter programs.”

STORM READY

Meteorologist John Robinson of the National Weather Service presented a plaque declaring Lonoke County a Storm Ready county. The designation is issued by a national program that encourages communities to take a proactive approach to hazardous-weather preparedness.

Eleven other counties and four cities in the state have earned the Storm Ready recognition.

To become eligible for the designation, a community must have in place a severe-weather preparedness plan, a 24-hour warning and emergency operations center, multiple communications channels and ways to alert the public about severe weather, weather monitoring capabilities, and public education about weather safety.

Lonoke County deputy emergency manager Kathy Zasimovich was credited with doing the bulk of the work, beginning two years ago, toward the Storm Ready award. She helped obtain a grant that has gone toward disseminating weather radios to many locations, including schools, nursing homes, churches and day care centers.

Since 1950, there have been 62 tornadoes in Lonoke County, making it third in Arkansas for tornado prevalence. The county ranks fourth in the state for tornado fatalities.

Robinson said that lack of awareness about an approaching storm contributes to fatalities.

Of the 21 tornado fatalities in Arkansas in 2008, six of the people who died were killed while on the phone rather than in a sheltered location.

“Too many people are oblivious to the warnings,” he said.

DRUG DOG TO BE PURCHASED

The court voted 10-2 in favor of the sheriff’s department purchasing a drug dog to assist with drug bust investigations. A transfer of $7,500 from the Sheriff’s Special Crimes Unit fund will cover the cost of the dog – expected to be $1,500 to $2,000 as well as training and other expenses.

Chief Deputy Dean White told the court, “In essence, a K-9 is another officer, and we could use the nose.”

At present, when the sheriff’s department needs to call in a drug dog, “98 percent of the time one is not available,” White said.

Cabot has a drug dog, and England is looking into getting one. Often, the sheriff turns to Tucker Prison to bring in a dog, and that can take up to two hours.

The dog likely would more than pay for itself. In the past when the county did own a drug dog, seizures of drugs, drug money and other items had a total value of $2.3 million, White said.