Courthouse vigilance causes long lines

January 25, 1995|By Art Kramer | Art Kramer,Sun Staff Writer

Responding to a recent security breach at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. courthouse, the city sheriff's office has turned up the sensitivity levels of metal detectors at both courthouse buildings.

But, because the detectors now flag nearly all metal objects -- including belt buckles, earrings and coins -- deputies must scan almost every courthouse visitor by hand. And that has led to another problem: lines of people waiting to enter the courthouse ooze down the steps and threaten to spill onto Calvert Street.

"It's a pain," said Michael Isekoff, 66, as he waited on the Calvert Street steps earlier this week to enter the courthouse for a property title search.

The detectors were adjusted after an incident about two weeks ago in which a man carried a penknife through the devices without setting them off. The weapon was discovered later during a post-conviction search, Chief Deputy David DeAngelis said.

Technicians adjusted the detectors as deputies walked through carrying sample items, he said. The machines were reset to detect knives the size of the one that had slipped through.

Those who frequent the courthouse say the lines outside are longest in the morning and just after lunch.

"They used to have two entrances. They need to open another door," said Mark Wittstadt, 30, standing in line earlier this week.

Courthouse security has been bolstered in other ways, too.

New identification cards are being issued to all Circuit Court employees, and they are required to show the cards upon entering the buildings. Until the new policy started, familiar faces were often waved through by deputies, Mr. DeAngelis said.

The regulars are subjected to metal detectors only occasionally, when deputies run spot checks, he said. Still, deputies have discovered guns in the briefcases of lawyers and other visitors with valid identification.

Sheriff John W. Anderson said the people who complain the loudest about lines would probably be the first to condemn the sheriff's office for a breach of security at the courthouse.

"My kids come to this courthouse to visit. My mother drops by if she's shopping downtown," Sheriff Anderson said, adding that he wants the families of judges, courthouse staff, city employees and everyone else who comes to the courthouse to feel as safe as his family.

Drugs, knives, pistols and even a samurai sword have been detected by deputies at the court entrances, he said.

"We never know when someone may try to rescue one of the bad guys out of here," said the sheriff, a former U.S. Air Force security policeman who once guarded the Strategic Air Command headquarters.

Dani and Mary Gordon certainly felt safe Monday as they descended the courthouse steps after their afternoon marriage.

"I wish the airport had security this tight," Mr. Gordon said as friends pelted the couple with rice.

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