Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop said a committee of local officials has been set up to look at courthouse security, and a consultant is expected to report back in a few weeks on suggestions for improvements.
Bishop said Monday, "At the present time we have created a committee of all the heads of the departments," including those for the district attorney, sheriff and the local judges.
"We have hired a consultant out of Pelham, Alabama," he said, identifying him as Daniel S. Boyd of Southeastern Alarm, Inc. "When we get his recommendations and suggestions, we'll sit down with our committee and go over all of this."
However, he said officials are limited in financial resources. "We have $100,000 to spend this year, and we have another $100,000 to spend next year," he said, referring to funds obtained by Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed. The latest round of funding was secured in the General Fund passed in the recent Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature.
"That could take us a long way," he said.
“The courthouse is the center of activity every day for people who need licenses, registrations, or who have court cases," Reed said last month when the funding was announced. He said he had worked closely with Bishop "in helping with the commission’s plans to modernize security at the courthouse, and it’s my goal to continue to fight for funding to support the citizens of Walker County,”
Bishop has visited the Jefferson County Courthouse to look at their security and may visit more, such as in Marion County Courthouse, where he was impressed from a report that 452 weapons were confiscated by security guards at the entrance in from April 1 to May 20. According to the Journal Record, the the items confiscated included 379 knives, seven guns, 27 mace or pepper spray items, four tasers, nine sets of brass knuckles and 14 military can openers.
Bishop said he read that, "and then I got to thinking. What have we got in this place?"
A number of ideas are being floated that still has to come before the committee, he said, although he said the ideas concentrate on the main courthouse and the annex behind it, known for the commission office, courtrooms and the Emergency Management Agency office and connected by a walkway.
Bishop said the Probate Judge's Office, which is also a courthouse annex building, will not be as difficult to deal with for courthouse security as the other buildings across the intersection.
He said the officials would continue to work on funding and carrying out projects, "even if we have to do it like we did our jail, in a three-year period."
"We've already bought a new server for these cards," he said, referring to plastic cards used to unlock doors at the courthouse offices. "We had more cards than we needed. People who were not even working there had a card.
"So we called them all in, and the ones we didn't know we took away (the cards). Then we met with some of the others to make sure they had them, like the circuit clerk has got to be done there at different times and the DA has to be down there at different times." He said many officials have to work on Saturdays or nights.
Bishop said many locks in the facilities are also going to be changed and metal detectors will be experimented with for the courtrooms. He said a metal detector would be used for a murder trial that is set to take place there within the next couple of months, with officers also stationed there.
"We don't even want them in the courthouse. We would rather get them before they come in," he said. "But the way that thing is set up it will be hard without having two. In the old courthouse, I can't put a handicapped (entrance) because of the angle. Where we are at at the annex, which they built when the (1974) tornado came through, you can put one there."
Bishop also said the configuration will be so that "we have two buildings" essentially. The enclosed second-floor walkway between will remain in effect, but a system will be put into place that can remotely and digitally lock the entrances on either side of the walkway, as well as other doors in the complex.
"We can close it down if we have a problem in one. We can kill the other one coming over there (to prevent) them from getting out of it. It will be open during regular hours," he said.
Asked about closing some of the entrances to the old courthouse, Bishop noted that employees will have cards to get into when the courthouse opens at 7:30 a.m.
"Eventually, we would like to have one entrance to each building," he said. "That's the future."
However, Bishop noted the limitations, adding that his first priority is to put a roof on the main courthouse using capital improvement funds. He also wants to know what it will cost to deal with the annex, which has two courtrooms and the commission offices.
"It would be the easiest one done, but you still have to have personnel. I tried to use these grants on personnel, and (the state) won't let me do it," he said. "You have to put it on equipment. And we have to write everything down and send it to (the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs)."
The cost of personnel will likely be the most expensive part of the plan, he said, noting two people are needed at a metal detector.
Bishop said Boyd impressed him in discussions has already toured the complex, and advised what computer server to get for the card system. He's hoping to have a final report from Boyd in the next two to three weeks, which would be followed by meetings of the committee.
"Will we all agree on everything? I hope we can," he said.