Courthouse shootings have become an all-too-common headline in recent history. And while Harvey County officials hope an event like that never happens locally, they have put together a committee to start discussing courthouse security concerns and what steps the county should take to minimize risks.
"Our attitude for so long has been, 'This is Harvey County — that won't happen here,'" Sheriff T. Walton said. "But in every county that has happened, it still happened there. Can we prevent everything? No, we cannot. But we can be prepared."
The county's security committee, which includes representatives from different departments, has had one meeting so far, and Walton would eventually like the group to meet on a monthly basis.
Walton said one of the primary issues uncovered by the security committee is that not all county employees are sure how to respond during an emergency, such as a bomb threat or a suspicious person in the courthouse. People were not sure who to call first in an emergency, how to find the panic alarms, when to initiate a lock-down, who has the authority to call for a lock-down, and when evacuation is the best option.
He'd also like the county to address some security concerns that at first might not appear to be dangerous. Certain landscaping features, such as large bushes, can provide places for people to hide behind and can obscure law enforcement officers' view of a scene. Decorative rocks outside a building can be used to smash windows or as a weapon to hurt people.
Another issue the security committee will have to deal with is new gun legislation. Walton said starting July 1, state law will require counties to allow people to carry firearms into the courthouse and the courtroom, regardless of the polices of counties or judges. Currently, courthouses may ban concealed weapons by posting a sign. The law would change that to require them to provide electronic security equipment and an armed guard in order to stop people from carrying concealed weapons.
Commissioner Randy Hague said the county doesn't have many options. They can take down the "no handgun" signs in the courthouse and allow concealed carry, but if a judge orders security for a courtroom, the county will have to bring in law enforcement officers to screen people going into the courtroom.
If money were no object, Walton would like to see the county install metal detectors and hire armed guards to secure the courthouse. The plan would include hiring about six additional staff members and would require the county to build onto the front of the courthouse to make room for the security checkpoint.
Hague estimates the metal detector plan would generate expenses anywhere from $600,000 to $800,000, with an ongoing annual cost of $250,000.
"It's going to be very expensive if we have to go full-blown, and go through the metal detectors at the entrance," he said.
Money is a concern for smaller counties, Walton said, and the courthouse may be forced to allow people to bring guns into the courthouse — potentially putting a strain on local law enforcement.
"We'll do our best," he said. "We'll respond to whatever emergency it is."
Right now, Hague said county commissioners are still discussing the issue and may try to apply for a four-year exemption. Ultimately, they'll still have to decide whether to go the metal detector route, and Hague is frustrated by what he said is another unfunded mandate from the state.
"I'm not sure we, as a county, can afford to do it," he said.