Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Officials seek courthouse security fixes

Commissioners OK buying alarm system for various offices

By Shelley Grieshop
CELINA - Officials are looking for ways to improve security at the Mercer County Courthouse as violent acts continue in public places.
One of the ideas discussed during a meeting Thursday morning at the courthouse was to lock all entranceways but one, where all visitors and employees would be subject to a metal detector and X-ray machine. No decision was made.
Mercer County Commissioners on Thursday approved the purchase of a $24,425 wireless panic alarm system for use in numerous offices in the courthouse, municipal court across the street and the Central Services Building one block away. The system, which will alert the sheriff's office and Celina Police, includes panic buttons and will upgrade the current wire-based network.
Sheriff Jeff Grey, who led Thursday's meeting, said the panic alarm upgrade is needed but only works "after the fact."
"There's no way that will guarantee your safety," he told officials, which included two judges and several county department heads.
Grey said locking all but one courthouse door is a proactive step. He stressed that everyone - even judges - would be required to enter through the single, unlocked door manned by deputies.
"There can't be any exceptions," he added.
Officials feel the areas most at risk are in and near the courtrooms. Walk-through scanners are presently used for high-profile court cases. Grey said other rooms also could be targets for violence such as the treasurer's office where property taxes are paid.
"We have a beautiful courthouse, but when it was built, it wasn't designed for the crazy people we have in society now," he said.
Grey admitted he's not thrilled about the lock-down plan.
"The courthouse belongs to the public, and I don't want to make it difficult for people to come here," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of them are law-abiding citizens."
Two deputies would be needed at the open entrance at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per year, he said. No estimate was given for the cost of equipment at the door.
One obstacle to the plan is handicap accessibility. The entranceway likely to remain open on the east side of the building along Main Street currently has no ramp, Grey said.
The local courthouse is one of only a few in the state that isn't "locked down," Grey said. Neighboring Auglaize County implemented the single-door entry system during a recent courthouse renovation project.
Grey is meeting today with Terry Lyons, a retired Erie County sheriff who now works for the state Supreme Court. Lyons conducts on-site reviews of courthouses across the state and gives written reports with concerns and suggestions.
Commissioner Jerry Laffin told officials the security topic arose following the shooting of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newton, Conn., in December. He also spoke about a minor incident at the Central Services Building on Monday when a man with mental health issues became disruptive and was escorted out by sheriff's deputies.
County auditor Randy Grapner asked if a violent incident had occurred at the courthouse in the past. Grey said the courts have experienced a few.
Probate/juvenile court Judge Mary Pat Zitter questioned if barrier walls with glass windows - like the one built in her office a few years ago - might be an option in some of the courthouse rooms instead of locking doors. Grey and Laffin said the idea was worth considering.
The sheriff asked that all elected officials or representatives from their staff attend future courthouse security meetings to provide input.
"You need to drive this train," he said.
The present committee consists of the sheriff, one commissioner, judges and some elected officials.
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