A matter of safety; Permanent metal detector could be added to courthouse
Published 11:01 am Wednesday, March 9, 2016
It’s likely only a matter of time until all people entering the Mower County Jail and Justice Center will need to pass through a metal detector.
A metal detector has been stationed near the downstairs entrance for several weeks now and has been largely left unplugged and unattended, but Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi sees the entire state trending toward using metal detectors at all courthouse entrances.
“I think at some point this definitely is going to come to fruition,” she said.
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Security at courthouses and at government offices has been a growing concern for many years. When the Mower County Jail and Justice Center opened in 2010, most offices featured safety windows. The county has been adding safety windows at the Mower County Government Center as it has made upgrades around the building.
“I think it’s the way of life today,” Amazi said. “It’s a sad fact.”
The county has also added key card doors for access to offices, and the plan is to eventually add safety glass at all county offices.
Most counties, cities and school districts are now taking such preventative measures to limit access in public buildings as a safeguard. County Coordinator Craig Oscarson referenced school shootings, a hostage situation in Morrison County in 2008 and several other incidents as catalysts for the change.
Oscarson said it’s partly symptomatic of society getting more dangerous.
“I think there’s just been a continuation of incidences and things that happened,” Oscarson said. “Part of it is the flavors of criminals we have and some of their associates that show up in court.”
Amazi noted every county office sees people with mental health, anger or drug issues.
“The whole gamut plays into it,” she said.
But the courthouse brings its own concerns. On any given day, Amazi said courts will see people who are not happy with a situation, especially in family court, which she described as the most contentious. That and incidents at other courthouses around the state and country are driving the push to be cautious.
“This is certainly an ongoing issue and it will continue to be,” Amazi said. “And I think throughout the country we’ve seen the tragedies that occur when you’re not doing something of this nature.”
However, Amazi said they’re looking to secure funding through the Legislature after commissioners across the state have voiced concerns over it becoming an unfunded mandate.
“This is going to be expensive,” Amazi said.
The metal detector and even a possible X-ray machine aren’t the issue. The biggest cost is the staff it will take to man the metal detectors effectively.
Oscarson said to do it properly, the metal detector will need to be staffed during all business hours. With two employees needed at the metal detector at all times and the justice center open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, Oscarson has estimated the county will need three employees dedicated toward staffing the metal detector when factoring in lunches and time off.
The county would have at least two individuals at the metal detector at all times, and one or both would need to be an armed deputy due to the nature of the screenings, Amazi noted.
Unless there’s a busy jury trial or a large jury pool, Amazi said the metal detectors shouldn’t require too much extra time for people entering the courthouse, but jurors often aren’t often screened.
But the good news is that Mower County planned for eventually using metal detectors when it built the Mower County Jail and Justice Center. Once the change occurs, Amazi anticipates the far west of the current three doors going from the entryway into the main floor of the justice center will remain locked, sending people through a doorway just before the elevator. That’s likely where the metal detector will be with tables nearby to go through bags. There’s even been discussion about adding an X-ray machine to go through bags, but that would have to be bought.
Right now, the county typically has one bailiff per courtroom, but the county will soon see an increased workload since Mower County will chamber a third judge by this summer.
Since the justice center opened, the metal detector has been used occasionally for contentious cases or special circumstances — often upstairs — when it’s been manned by an armed deputy and bailiff. Until the state enacts changes and until funding for staff is determined, Amazi said the county will staff the metal detectors as often as possible.