BEAUFORT — The senior resident judge presiding over court in this district and the clerk of superior court are demanding that better security measures be implemented at the courthouse here.
“For too long Carteret County has had little to no security for the court system and the persons who work there and jurors who are summonsed there,” stated Judge Benjamin Alford in a letter, dated Feb. 1, to county manager Russell Overman.
Pam Hanson, the clerk of court, also wrote to Mr. Overman Feb. 4 reinforcing the judge’s request. “The public expects and has every right to expect a safe and secure environment when coming to pay their tax bill, or fulfill their civic obligation in jury service,” she wrote.
Judge Alford listed concerns he had with the number of entrances to the courthouse, as well as a lack of metal detectors. “This is a situation that must be remedied,” the judge wrote.
“I have been licensed as an attorney since 1978 and I have never gone into a federal courthouse without going through rigorous screening including a metal detector and having my briefcase searched,” he continued. “I know that this will involve considerable expense to the taxpayers to implement a security system; however, I believe the people that work at the courthouse and the public that utilizes its services are entitled to be secure therein. Most courthouses in North Carolina already have implemented security systems and I believe it’s time for Carteret County to do likewise.”
Ms. Hanson in her letter stated she has witnessed several fights on the premises and has been a victim of vandalism.
“I am not suggesting total lockdown occur tomorrow, but implore you and the commissioners to allow us to identify a plan with phased-in stages that will achieve the goal of a secure, safe environment in a way that is fiscally responsible, achievable and not overwhelming in scope,” she stated.
In response, Mr. Overman told the judge that County Sheriff Asa Buck had spoken to the N.C. Sheriff’s Association to provide assistance in conducting an assessment with recommendations to correct deficiencies.
Ms. Hanson also notified the manager that the Administrative Office of Courts had conducted an assessment of the facility in 2010, which he will review.
“Please know that we take the safety of all persons who visit our courthouse facility very seriously and that we will work very diligently within resources available to the county to correct deficiencies that are identified,” Mr. Overman said in his letter to the judge. “We will welcome any recommendations or assistance that you can provide as we move forward to remedy this situation.”
The County Board of Commissioners discussed the subject Tuesday during an all-day retreat at the Trinity Center in Pine Knoll Shores.
Several of the commissioners are familiar with the problem. In 2011 the board hired Solutions 4 Local Government to conduct a facilities study in the county. The results showed that the county’s buildings are sorely in need of more space and upgrades to security, none more so than the courthouse.
“ ‘Security’ is by far, the single greatest concern expressed and discussed among the public, the legal community, law enforcement professionals and most particularly the county and state employees who work within the building on a daily basis,” the report states.
Upgrading security at the location will cost money and will be inconvenient for many who work at or visit the facility. The problem is that the courthouse is connected to the courthouse annex, which in turn is connected to the county administration building. A member of the public can enter the administration building and walk to the original courthouse building.
“Our layout means a judge may be walking down the same hall the prisoner is that’s about to be before that judge,” Mr. Overman said.
Should the county limit access to the facility or implement a metal detector, people going to pay their tax bill or go to the County Register of Deeds Office will also be affected.
Mr. Overman told the board that addressing the multiple entrances would be the easiest and least costly. “If we address the entrances and didn’t address anything else, we’ve bought time before other issues need to be addressed,” he said.
When it comes to security, Judge Alford has the final word. In fact, if the county fails to address the situation, the judge can consider using his contempt power to force the order.
Commissioner Robin Comer said there would need to be a short-term fix, with a more permanent solution included in a facilities master plan, which the county will have to address soon. Commissioners are considering hiring a company to draft a plan that would take care of its growth in the future.
“I think we are going to spend more on facilities over the next 25 years than anything else we face,” said Greg Lewis, the chairman of the board. “We need to go out and we need to hire somebody to do this thing right the first time.”
The board authorized the manager to get requests for proposals from architectural firms that could design a concept for the county’s facilities.
Contact Ben Hogwood at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @benccnt.