Officials: Improve court security
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
August 30, 2013 05:19 pm

Assistant District Attorney Jake Conde has been accosted in the parking lot of the courthouse in Gold Beach by friends and family of those his office is prosecuting.

He’s wary during court because, even though he faces the judge, his back is to the gallery.

And anybody sitting there could be packing a gun, a plastic explosive — or even a three-dimensional printing of an AR-15, which, odd as it might sound, carries the deadly force of its real-life namesake.

“I’m usually the least popular or second-most least popular guy in that room,” Conde told county commissioners during a work session Wednesday regarding courthouse security. “At least the judge can duck. I’ve got my back to them.”

Recently, havoc broke out in a courtroom, prompting the judge to call for sheriff’s assistance. No one was available, resulting in Gold Beach Police Chief Dixon Andrews responding to help — and ending up serving as bailiff for the day.

“It’s scary,” said County Clerk Reneé Kolen, whose office was disrupted by the melee. “Court security is important. In today’s world, we’ve got to step it up.”

Court and district attorney officials are asking county commissioners to consider minor changes to the building to ensure security while simultaneously making it easier for people who use the public facility.

There are cameras whose footage is displayed live to 911 operators, and deputies routinely walk the corridors of the old building. But the layout of the courthouse isn’t conducive to modern-day uses, much less security, Conde noted.

Because the courtrooms are on the basement and top level floors — other county offices are on the floor in between — defendants coming from the jail go through two different corridors to reach the proper courtroom. That in turn, requires two sets of security officers — something the Sheriff’s Office does not have to offer. 

The downstairs courtroom features an expansive area for the attorneys, the judge and the accused. Spectators are limited to two tight rows of seats behind the bar — and those dozen or so chairs are situated around a load-bearing, view-blocking pillar in the center of the floor.

“You take one step behind (that pillar) and you have 3 feet of a perfect vantage point on the judge, the DA, the attorney and the defendant’s attorney,” Conde said. “It’s the one chair where you can’t be seen by the judge. It makes me feel a little … funny.”

He noted that the sheriff currently has lodged into the jail two men accused of attempted murder.

“And they have friends,” Conde said.

Red-faced

Sometimes it’s mere inconvenience for those using the courthouse and jail between Gauntlett and Moore streets, Conde said.

Currently, wheelchair users face a wall of steps at the front door of the courthouse and upon entering either side, another set of steps leading up to the main floor or down to the basement.

The only wheelchair access is a ramp between the courthouse and the jail, near the sally port where prisoners are walked from jail to court and “processed” when they are first lodged in jail.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell people who go to the side door and ask how to get into the building,” Conde said, “I have to explain to them, ‘You’re going to go around the corner to the parking lot, over to the ramp by the sally port to the back of the courthouse and take the elevator.’”

No one’s there to greet — or ensure security — at that entrance, either, Conde said, which could make people feel lost or uneasy.

Safer yet

Court and district attorney officials believe that closing the side doors on Gauntlett and Moore streets to public use and encouraging people to use the front door on Ellensburg Avenue would keep people from funneling into the building from different directions.

They’d also like to reintroduce the “greeter” who used to help people at the front door, directing them to various offices and ensuring they received the paperwork they needed. Installing a metal detector there would be one more added assurance, Conde said.

“These things would never deter a shooter,” he said, adding that additional layers of security might deter an attack, but would primarily slow down people who had to look a security person in the eye before going through a metal detector. “This is the only courthouse I have ever been in without a metal detector. It’s kind of strange.”

Security issues are not limited to serious offenders, either.

“Even family cases — like divorce,” Conde said. “He (the husband) decides, if he can’t have her nobody can? You’ve got a problem.”

Commissioners plan to research how much it would cost to install additional cameras throughout the facility, consolidate entry points from the jail to the courthouse and the feasibility of having greeters at the main entrance. That, however, brings up the issue of training people in the use of a metal detector and security wands — and county liability should anyone get hurt or feel their privacy has been invaded in a search.

The entire security subject shocked Nesika Beach resident Kathy Breyer, in attendance at the board meeting.

“I can’t believe this (lack of) security,” she told the board. “My mother recently died in Florida, and I had to go through (numerous) security checks just to go to the building and get the paperwork. I can bring a weapon in here and there’s no security in the courtroom? You need to think of plastic guns. And 3-D printing is all plastic. And those guns work.”