published Friday, December 28th, 2012

Security to be boosted at Chattanooga-Hamilton County Courts Building

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

From arming more officers to remodeling part of a courtroom, Hamilton County leaders are eyeing ways to tighten security at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Courts Building.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Thursday the changes were requested by General Sessions Court judges wanting to tighten security.

No specific incident or threat triggered the shift, he said.

"In Sessions Court there are more people and emotions are running higher because it's often the first appearance for the defendants and victims going through the court process," Coppinger said. "We want to make sure they feel secure to do their jobs."

Starting Monday, armed Hamilton County sheriff's deputies who once stood at the entrance to the courts building will be moved inside the General Sessions courtrooms.

That means each courtroom that is in session will have three officers -- two of whom are armed.

The deputies who once stood at the building's entrances will be replaced with two armed security officers from Walden Security.

Walden Security already has officers stationed at the courthouse entrance alongside the deputies, but they are now unarmed.

Arming two extra security guards will cost $23,000, which will be tacked onto the county's contract with Walden Security.

Coppinger said the move saves the county from having to hire two additional full-time deputies.

The Hamilton County Commission also will consider a measure next week to add $8,000 to the county's maintenance budget to remodel one of the courtrooms to include more safety features, with a higher dais for the judge's bench and metal-plated wood for the bench.

Commissioner Jim Fields, who is an attorney, asked why there was an immediate need to refurbish the room, which used to be used for jurors.

"I've never heard of any incident where a judge has been harmed in that courtroom," Fields said.

Commissioner Greg Beck, who has been a court officer in the building for 12 years, said he had "no question" the remodeling would add to judges' safety.

"You're only as secure as you feel. And they don't really feel secure," he said.

Several commissioners referred to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., this month as part of their motivation to support the remodeling.

"We just think, 'It's been like this all along and nothing's happened. That's when it's going to happen," Beck said.

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