Commission votes to limit access to county courthouse
by Jennifer Cohron
Apr 22, 2014 | 1098 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Walker County Commission voted Monday to secure the courthouse and adjoining annex by limiting access to one entrance.

The plan, which was discussed by commissioners at a work session in March, calls for a metal detector and a Walker County Sheriff’s deputy to be stationed in the basement. The entrance is one of the few at the courthouse that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All other doors will be locked, although a system of motion sensors will allow alternative ways for individuals to exit the buildings.

The annex, where the commission offices and courtrooms are located, will only be accessible by a crosswalk that connects to the courthouse.

“If you go in any courthouse in the state that has adequate security, you’re going to enter at one location and usually exit at that same location. So we’re not doing anything that’s different here than is going on anywhere else,” said District 4 representative Steven Aderholt.

Chairman Billy Luster described the new security measure as the most cost-effective solution to a pressing problem.

Luster added that the responsibility for enacting the plan falls to presiding Circuit Court Judge Jerry Selman, who has been a vocal proponent of beefing up courthouse security, as well as Sheriff John Mark Tirey, who will have to reassign the deputy who currently patrols the courthouse.

“I guess the next step will be to have the presiding court judge to write a letter to the sheriff asking him to man that station. As quickly as that station can be manned by an officer, it will be implemented. Tomorrow’s fine with me if it’s OK with the sheriff,” Luster said.

District 1 representative Keith Davis reiterated remarks by Luster that limiting access to the courthouse is a short-term solution.

“A long-term plan would be a handicapped accessible ramp coming in the front of the courthouse and, hopefully, at some point in time having two guards manning that station,” Davis said.

Discussions about lax security at the courthouse date back for several administrations.

A series of incidents over the past year, including handguns being brought into local courtrooms, highlighted the seriousness of the problem.

Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie said a suspected bomb threat that resulted in the evacuation of the courthouse last week revealed further weaknesses in the current security strategy.

“We had some people left in the courthouse that weren’t even notified. Also, we had people who locked their doors up and totally left the building. When the deputies got ready to do their search, they couldn’t search,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie also questioned why county employees were only moved back one block during the evacuation.

Guthrie said he instructs his own employees to evacuate to the parking lot behind the Community Health System Building.

“I looked out and we had our employees lining these streets. If a bomb blows, it’s going to blow out, and we’ve got dead employees. I think we need to get something in place to address that,” he said.

Luster said the courthouse was evacuated because of a call that came in to the circuit clerk’s office.

“I don’t think the word ‘bomb’ was ever mentioned. I think they just said that we need to evacuate the courthouse, and we acted accordingly,” Luster said.

Aderholt said commissioners are currently looking over policies and procedures for the courthouse, and special attention will be paid to security protocol.

“If there is such a policy in place now, maybe we can go back and amend it or let’s figure out how we can execute it better the next time this happens. Obviously, there was some kind of failure in communication,” Aderholt said.

District 2 representative Dan Wright said sending emergency alerts through an intercom or phone system if possible would be a better way to communicate to employees in a variety of situations.

“A lot of times, we send somebody around and tell people to get out. If we had an active shooter in this courthouse, you can’t be running up and down the halls,” Wright said.

In other action, commissioners learned that bid packages for the new animal shelter should be available by May 6, and a bid could be awarded at the June 2 meeting.

County engineer Mike Short estimated that the timeframe for construction will be 120 days.

Commissioners also voted to request an opinion from the Alabama Attorney General about legal advertising for the upcoming elections.