published Friday, February 17th, 2012

Rhea County asks sheriff to estimate cost of improving courthouse safety

Tom Davis/Correspondent

DAYTON, Tenn. -- Rhea County commissioners have asked the sheriff to bring estimated costs for improved courthouse security to their regular meeting next week.

Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal addressed the security issue this week in the wake of an incident a week ago when a man allegedly attempted to attack employees in the clerk of court's office and was subdued by a sheriff's deputy.

"The problem is not security, the problem is the building was built in the 1800s," Neal said. "It was not built for the number of people coming in today. If you want 100 percent security, we'll have to hire four or five officers and buy new metal detectors."

But even that's a stopgap measure, he said.

"We've got to get away from a historic courthouse to have court in," Neal said. "You can't carry 25 inmates across the street [from the jail] to court" and not have them segregated from the public.

"What can we do next Tuesday [at the council's regular meeting] to secure the courthouse?" Commissioner Ronnie Raper asked.

The sheriff suggested that hiring three part-time deputies, installing new metal detectors for entrances and shutting off the elevator's access to the basement would be good stop-gap measures. Commissioners asked him to bring cost figures for those steps to the meeting.

Commissioner Ron Masterson said the issue has been around for a while and "we're not going to solve it tonight."

"I think the commission is going to have to sit down and decide what direction to go," he said.

County Attorney Carol Barron reminded commissioners that courts "see people at their worst emotional states. They have emotional meltdowns, and we don't know when they are going to do that."

The commission recently hired an architect and construction manager to recommend whether to build a new jail or a justice center. Until the firms make a recommendation, Neal said, he does not believe the commission will be in a position to make a decision about the courthouse.

Commissioner Bill Hollin also asked the sheriff to consider using the former Rhea County Nursing Home building as a holding facility for nonviolent inmates after LifeCare Center of Rhea County vacates the building next year.

Neal responded that, because of the building's layout, it would require a significant number of deputies to police it.

No action was taken on the suggestion.

Tom Davis is based in Dayton, Tenn. Contact him at tsdavis@volstate.net.

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