Courthouse workers in Cape Girardeau County concerned about limited security

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Though the trial occurred more than 10 years ago, Perry County Sheriff Gary Schaaf still remembers what happened after a man charged with sexually assaulting several children was acquitted.

In a packed courtroom of the Common Pleas Courthouse in Cape Girardeau, a brother of one of the victims leapt to his feet, yelling accusations at the man, Schaaf said. His actions incited other family members of victims, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

"I tried to get them all settled down and out of the courtroom. They had worked with me in the past and trusted me to some extent," Schaaf said.

The altercation could easily have escalated. Though there has never been an incident resulting in serious injury, officials who work in the Common Pleas Courthouse and the Cape Girardeau County Courthouse in Jackson say they have concerns about the limited security in both buildings.

"We've had some bomb threats or judges or prosecutors threatened, and we go into reaction mode, but preventing that is a different story," said Lt. David James, spokesman for the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department, who oversees security for both courthouses.

Five bailiffs are dispersed between the courthouses, and all of them undergo a seminar taught by a former U.S. marshal, said Capt. J.P. Mulcahy of the sheriff's department.

A concern is that aside from the bailiffs, virtually nothing exists in the way of security at the Common Pleas Courthouse, Cape Girardeau County Associate Circuit Judge Peter Statler said, adding that it's not unusual for altercations to occur in the parking lot and the hallway.

"It's just wide open," Statler said.

In Statler's ground-floor courtroom, he sees juvenile cases, custody cases, adult abuse cases and other domestic cases that have the potential for violence.

"There's a feeling among members of law enforcement that perhaps domestic cases are sometimes the most dangerous," said Circuit Judge William Syler.

The building that houses the courthouse, though charming and a piece of local history, Statler said, is simply too antiquated to adapt itself to secure measures, such as restricted access where people could be checked for weapons and courtrooms above the ground floor that would not be vulnerable to an outside threat.

A few weeks ago, a bullet hole was found in a courthouse window. It's thought to have occurred during the night, but it could have easily been at 10 a.m., Statler said.

At the county courthouse in Jackson, similar security concerns arise, such as multiple doors where people have free access and the escort of prisoners to and from the jail across the street.

Though many courthouses are equipped with a "sally port," a controlled space where prisoners can be escorted into the courthouse by vehicle, the Jackson courthouse doesn't have one.

Jesse Hathcock, court services coordinator for the Office of the State Court Administrator, said the circuit court in Jackson has requested a security assessment of the premises and that it would occur soon.

A 28-page checklist, including such aspects as architectural layout, knowledge of employees, policies and procedures, will be considered, Hathcock said.

Controlling access to the courthouse is a major point of consideration, Hathcock said. The fewer access points a building has, the easier to accommodate security, especially with limited staffing. However, there's no "cookie cutter" design for adequate security, Hathcock said.

"We look at the activity and reduce the potential for problems," Hathcock said.

A portable metal detector has been used at the Jackson courthouse for especially high-profile cases over the past several years, probably about 10 times, James said.

When attorneys have a client they feel could pose a threat or present a discipline problem, they alert security in advance and adequate arrangements are made, but it's impossible to do that on a day-to-day basis, Syler said.

Putting both courthouses under one roof would simplify the process because security efforts would not have to be duplicated, Syler said.

The judges have expressed concerns to the Cape Girardeau County Commission about the security issues, 2nd District Commissioner Jay Purcell said.

Plans to work out a way of using the old federal courthouse on Broadway for county purposes have stalled, but that would solve some of the issues, such as cutting down the points of access to just one entrance and exit, Purcell said.

At a county commission meeting in May, Associate Circuit Judge Gary Kamp spoke to the commission about a grant awarding $6,700 toward the cost of implementing another panic button for the Jackson courthouse, a device to summon law enforcement in case of an emergency.

Commissioner Larry Bock said he agrees there should be a study done to assess any flaws in security, but while safety is "always a concern," he opposes the idea of limiting points of access to the courthouse.

"The county is here to serve all the people, not just the crooks and the criminals," Bock said.

Bock said the commission will see what the state court administrator's recommendations are and evaluate what is affordable and practical for the county.

Bock said he was unaware of any specific budget requests made by the circuit court.

"Security is not what it should be, and we'd be delighted to work with the commission on it," Syler said.

335-6611, extension 245

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