published Sunday, February 15th, 2009

McMinn County: Courthouses consider security precautions


by Ron Clayton

ATHENS, Tenn. — A recent security drill at the McMinn County Courthouse pointed out some problems with the warning system, including panic buttons that did not work.

That was the whole reason for the test, said Joe Guy, assistant to County Mayor John Gentry — to try to find holes in the system or unanticipated problems before a real event occurs.

“We created a scenario, and the purpose was not to surprise, but to walk through a situation,” Mr. Guy said. “We had a committee to observe and review the drill.”

The scenario had an irate taxpayer barging into the county trustee’s office and threatening the workers. A courthouse team led by security officers responded to the incident. Mr. Guy said the drill went well, overall.

McMinn County is planning a new justice center that will alleviate many security problems at the current courthouse, with its many doors and unmonitored halls, where plaintiffs and defendants, criminal suspects and court officers mingle freely on court days.

In the meantime, Mr. Guy said, the county has installed video cameras, panic buttons, two-way radios and bulletproof glass where needed to beef up security.

Polk County’s new justice center, which was built in 2007, has an in-house security force because the sheriff’s office is in the same building as the courts, Detective Joe Price said. He said grants paid for a video system in the Ducktown courts, and the Benton Justice Center has walk-through metal detectors available. He said officers are fully equipped and some carry electronic stun guns.

“Of course, it’s not a perfect world, but it works well,” Detective Price said.

The Bradley County Justice Center has its own security and is well protected, Sheriff Tim Gobble said, but there are major gaps in other areas.

His officers must cover the justice center, the juvenile detention center and the downtown courthouse, which he said is an incident waiting to happen.

“We have been very lucky at the courthouse, but it is a ticking time bomb,” Sheriff Gobble said.

He has wrangled with the County Commission over money to fund extra security.

“It is a huge liability factor for the county,” he said.

Meigs County Executive Ken Jones said the courthouse has a metal detector at the courthouse, but no one to operate it.

“We recently had a lockdown at the courthouse when a telephone threat had a man calling to say he was going to shoot up the courthouse,” Mr. Jones said. “We don’t really have a security system.”

He said he has presented a proposal to the County Commission to hire a full-time officer for the door, but commissioners so far haven’t agreed to spend the money.

“Right now there is no plan and no drills,” he said.

Mr. Jones, along with officials in Bradley and Polk counties, said they don’t have a plan to conduct courthouse security drills.

Mr. Guy said McMinn officials believe periodic drills help improve responses and remind employees to think about security.

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