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Vastly improved courthouse security is money well spent

Courthouse security was already on my mind this week.

Then, it was part of the county commissioners agenda on Monday night.

Coincidence? I think not.

On Monday morning in Winston-Salem, a colleague of mine wrote a story about the sentencing of a man in a gruesome double murder. The victims were stabbed, repeatedly, and, ultimately, dismembered.

And, as you can imagine, emotions boiled over.

A brother of one of the victims charged the suspect in the courtroom and had to be tased by authorities.

Once that seal of anger was cracked, plenty more outbursts and attempts to attack the suspect took place in court and, ultimately, the judge had to clear the courtroom.

Three people were taken into custody, charged with disorderly conduct.

Hearing the grisly details of the killings, one can tend to understand the eruption of tension in the courtroom on Monday morning in Winston-Salem.

Two people were stabbed, savagely, and dismembered.

The suspect's rationale? He felt disrespected by the victims -- who were roommates.

I bring this up not just to spotlight a gruesome case and courtroom turmoil in a city hundreds of miles away.

It should serve as an example of what can happen in any courtroom -- even one here.

Which is why it was comforting to hear of even more security that will be deployed in Franklin County's courthouse.

Anyone who has made a habit of going to Franklin County's courthouse, particularly its main courthouse, has seen a transformation in available security.

Amazingly, I remember a time when security was, in a word, lax.

But, now, the courthouse is secured by Franklin County sheriff's deputies.

Public access is controlled as visitors are only allowed to enter through the front; back and side doors are controlled by key-card access.

There is a metal detector at the entrance of the courthouse in an effort to keep weapons out of the judicial process.

And there are monitors that allow deputies to keep an eye on sensitive areas in the courthouse.

There is a weakness that county staff, courthouse officials, law enforcement leaders and a courthouse technology company plan to address -- in two ways.

Most important to courthouse safety is that the county intends to install key-card access in areas inside the main courthouse -- essentially, the hallways that lead to the prosecutors' offices.

While access is controlled to get into the courthouse, once inside, visitors are essentially free to roam.

And, the areas where prosecutors operate -- you know, the people who are working to prove guilt and help determine punishments -- are not immediately secured.

During the Franklin County Board of Commissioners' meeting on Monday night, Information Technology Director Coy Floyd said the county wants to remedy that by installing key-card access, which would limit the public's ability to mosey up to their office doors.

"Courthouse security is a very critical issue," Floyd said.

Indeed, it is. And commissioners agreed to provide the funding to install systems to limit access to sensitive areas of the courthouse.

The second safety issue involved inmates.

Currently, the jail is responsible for transporting inmates from the jail to the courthouse for a variety of reasons and appearances before a judge.

It creates logistical concerns for jail staff, said Sheriff Kent Winstead, noting that jailers have to load inmates into a van, secure them for transport, keep an eye on them in holding cells in the courthouse and maintain a watchful eye on them while appearing in the courtroom.

Beyond that, said District Court Chief Judge John Davis, inmate interactions with those in the public can be ripe for incidents or altercations.

So, county, judicial staff and law enforcement began exploring the idea of using remote court appearance technology. It offers inmates -- who have less intensive matters to address, such as 96-hour hearings and domestic violence hold matters -- the ability essentially teleconference with a judge without having to leave the jail.

"The long and short of it is ... it's going to reduce the number of transports from the jail to the courthouse and the courthouse back to the jail," Davis said.

"... If you cut down 10 to 15 persons a day that have to be transferred because of this system, [it improves] safety," he said.

County commissioners agreed because they decided to cough up the $10,000 a year to install and maintain the courthouse security measures.

As someone who frequents the courthouse, I can say that it's money well spent.


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