In the wake of the Crawford County Courthouse shooting that occurred in September, officials with the Faulkner County Courthouse are taking a look at security measures where they work to see what can be done to reduce the chances of something similar happening in Conway.
Judge Michael Maggio, second division, Karl Byrd, Faulkner County Sheriff, Preston Scroggin, Faulkner County Judge, and other members of law enforcement recently met to discuss what measures could be taken to improve security for those that work in the courthouse and annex buildings and the public conducting business there. Maggio was asked to come up with options that he presented to Quorum Court members earlier this week, so that something could be done to provide another level of safety for everyone. Maggio said he feels like everyone should have the expectation of safety when they walk in the doors, whether that is to go to work, or take care of personal business.
"Anyone accessing the courthouse has an expectation of safety, and that should be for everyone there," he said. "It is unfortunate that we have to be worried about something like that, but whoever thought a federal building in Oklahoma City would have been bombed or prior to 9/11, who ever thought that would be a reality?"
Cody Hiland, prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial District, said his office has already taken steps to ensure the safety of his employees based partly on the events that occurred in Crawford County.
"Anytime you have a situation like the one in Crawford County, it makes you reevaluate your own security situation," Hiland said. "In a public office, it’s a difficult balance to strike between the public’s right to have access to their public officials and the security of those who work for you. We have taken additional steps to increase our security but hopefully not so restrictive as to place a burden on our citizens in gaining access to the services we provide."
Maggio said for himself as a judge, the need for extra security has been brought to his mind many times over the years as fights have broken out in his courtroom and defendants have stood at the podium to address the court that seemed suspicious.
"Last winter, I had a man standing at the podium addressing the court who was irate and acting a little suspicious," he said. "He had on a heavy winter coat and was carrying a backpack, and as I sat there listening to him, I thought about what would happen if he had a gun. I have a bailiff, but how many innocent people would have been hurt or killed if things took a turn for the worse? That is a great example of why we need metal detectors and people to screen anyone coming into the courthouse."
While there are metal detectors outside the courtrooms presently, they don’t always get used. Byrd said his department is responsible for security inside the courthouse and his resources are stretched as far as they can be right now, which means that often times, the metal detectors go unused.
"I have five deputies inside the courthouse acting as bailiffs and security," he said. "To put that in perspective, on any given day I have 20 deputies on patrol throughout the entire county. One fourth of my workforce is at the courthouse and I just don’t have any more people to spare. Without more funding for deputies salaries, I can’t hire any new deputies, which leaves us right where we are. We utilize everyone as best we can to provide the best coverage we can."
Maggio suggested an option of hiring an outside security firm to act as screeners when people come inside the courthouse and security inside the courtrooms, which would free up the deputies inside the courthouse to be patrolling the county. He was asked by the quorum court members to collect bids for outside agencies to determine the cost of such an action. He also discussed the possibility of blocking entrances to the courthouse and leaving one door for everyone to come through, which could have security screeners located at it.
"We are on the list for an X-ray machine from the U.S. Marshals and we could use the equipment we have to screen people as they enter the courthouse that way they have already gone through security before they ever get inside the building," he explained. "If everyone is screened it lessens the need to have additional security inside the building. We have also discussed the possibility of blocking off the breezeway area at the back entrance to the courthouse and setting a check point up in that area because the space is already available. There are many options we can take and right now we are just looking into them to see which ones, if any, we can make happen."
The importance of screening check points was made clear to Maggio when they turned on a metal detector in the courthouse annex building on Caldwell Street. That day, deputies collected 43 weapons ranging from Bowie knives, brass knuckles, nunchucks, bullets and other knives with a blade more than two inches long. He said that to him, that was a good indicator of what items might be making their way into courtrooms throughout the entire courthouse.
"We are talking about weapons that could inflict serious injury to someone," he said. "This is a big deal to anyone coming into the courthouse and to all of us that work here. If these weapons showed up in our section of the courthouse, what is being brought into other areas of the courthouse that deal with more serious offenses?"
While criminal cases are heard in the main portion of the courthouse and have bailiffs present to keep order in the courtroom, Byrd said additional security is utilized if law enforcement feels like the issue may require more of a presence.
"Anytime court is going on, we have people in the courtroom," he said. "We utilize reserves and part time deputies when needed for bigger issues. We can’t use them all the time because of budget constraints, but we will when we feel like it is warranted."
While options are mulled over by the Quorum Court and more information is gathered, Maggio said his goal is to see something happen in the next six to nine months. However, after a plan is made to create additional security, the next step is finding the funding to pay for it from an already tight budget.
(Candie Beck is a staff writer and can be reached at 505-1238 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)