Potential courthouse security problems cited

July 17, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

Security at Harford Circuit Court is not a problem, authorities say, but they acknowledge that several potential problems do exist.

"We've never had a serious security problem at the courthouse," said Sheriff Robert E. Comes. "Courthouse visitors do not have to fear entering the building."

Cpl. Charles Kline, who supervises courthouse security, said visitors sometimes turn around and walk out of the building rather than pass through the metal detector in the main lobby.

"We have not found guns or knives hidden in the bushes outside the doors, as they have in other counties," the sheriff said.

With about 7,000 civil and criminal cases handled annually in the courthouse, the number of daily visitors runs in the hundreds.

The building is wired with an alarm system, said Sheriff Comes.

Deputies staff the main entrance, guard prisoners brought to the courthouse for trials and patrol the courtrooms, judges' chambers and halls.

About six deputies are regularly assigned to handle those duties. More are assigned to assist as needed.

Nevertheless, potential problems at the courthouse, at 20 W. Courtland St., are numerous, the sheriff acknowledged.

For example, county fire regulations require that anyone inside the building must be able to exit through selected doors in an emergency.

That means anyone can open those doors from inside and allow outsiders -- who could be armed -- into the courthouse without their having to pass through the metal detector in the lobby.

Even the metal detector is not foolproof. Anyone who passes through it wearing steel-toed boots, for example, sets off the alarm.

"All we can do [when someone's shoes or boots set off the detector] is ask them to step aside, raise their foot [from the floor] and use the hand scanner," Corporal Kline said. "Nothing can be placed on the floor to eliminate interference from steel beams in the floor."

He said the intensity of the tone emitted from the hand scanner should be enough to alert a deputy if, for example, a knife or handgun is strapped to a person's ankle or lower leg.

Corporal Kline also said the metal detector's sensitivity setting was increased recently to improve its effectiveness.

Without probable cause, deputies may not unwrap packages or dig into handbags and attache cases that people carry into the courthouse, Corporal Kline said.

The building's rear door, which opens onto Bond Street, also is a potential danger spot, especially on nights when the County Council meets.

Council sessions are taped for cable TV broadcasts, so the rear door of the courthouse is propped open to allow cables -- which connect television cameras in the council chamber to a truck outside the building -- to be routed through the doorway.

That leaves the courthouse accessible to anyone.

No easy solutions to such security problems have presented themselves.

Control of the courthouse is complex. Authority within the building is shared by William O. Carr, the chief administrative judge; Jeffrey D. Wilson, president of the County Council; State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly; and Sheriff Comes.

David W. Sewell, director of facilities and operations for the county government, is charged with maintaining the building.

And County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and the County Council jointly control the Harford budget, from which the various county authorities -- including the sheriff -- obtain money to run their departments.

The building has a complex layout, with five levels -- two below ground -- in the wing near Bond Street.

The original wing, near Main Street, houses the state's attorney's office on the first level and a large courtroom on the second.

Security may become more difficult when a fifth circuit judge, already approved by the state legislature, is appointed, Sheriff Comes said.

The appointment probably will be made during the 1995 General Assembly session, after a new governor is in office.

Before then, the County Council, which occupies Level A -- the first of two subterranean floors -- in the courthouse's new wing probably will be moved out of the courthouse, said James D. Vannoy, a council attorney. The county administration is studying the matter, he said.

Mr. Sewell said the administration must find a suitable place to move the council. That will affect how his office resolves the rear-door security problem.

Sheriff Comes said Mr. Sewell was considering installing a permanent cable TV connector in the walls, but that would not be necessary if the County Council moved out of the building.

Another option, installing a camera at the back door with a monitor at the main desk in the lobby, wouldn't solve the problem, Mr. Sewell said.

"You could spot someone coming in the back entrance, but they would be gone by the time you could get there to do anything about it," he said.

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