Security measures increased

September 12, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

To pay a traffic ticket or file a lawsuit in Towson these days, you need to do more than bring your checkbook and pen. To enter the building, you have to undo your watch strap, turn off your pager, empty your pockets and open your purse.

All this to prepare to walk through the Garrett Magnascanner 5500, a 7-foot-high metal detector installed at Towson District Court last week.

It's the first of at least six district courts in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties scheduled to have metal detectors installed this fall -- and part of a trend that could lead to detectors being installed in those courts throughout the state.

Metal detectors are needed because people feel unsafe in public buildings, especially after the Oklahoma City bombing, says Judge Robert F. Sweeney, the state's chief District Court judge.

"Not just judges, but our employees, are apprehensive for their own welfare, and we're all apprehensive for the welfare of people who come into the courts," he said yesterday.

District courts in Baltimore, Prince George's and Frederick counties have had metal detectors for at least five years. The detectors also are in some district courts in smaller jurisdictions, and in circuit courts in Maryland's metropolitan areas.

Other areas could see them soon -- Montgomery, Washington, Harford and Howard county district courts are being examined to see whether detectors can be installed for a reasonable cost, Judge Sweeney said.

Responding to a 4-year-old request, the state legislature allotted in July about $350,000 for the scanners, which cost $5,000 each to purchase and install. The rest of the money will go toward paying bailiffs $20,000 a year.

In the Towson District Court, Joseph Sacco and other bailiffs dressed in gray pants, white shirts and blue blazers are taking temporary shifts at the detector until permanent hires are made.

"If the alarm goes off, we give them two tries," said Mr. Sacco, who was humming and pacing during a lull in his shift yesterday. "If it goes off the third time, then we scan them," using the hand-held Garrett Super Scanner.

"Put your hands over your ears like this," he told Kim Tucker, 30, of Baltimore, who came to pay a speeding ticket. She was wearing earrings that could have set the detector buzzing.

Rooting through her purse, he asked her if she carried any mace or pen knives. She went through the scanner without a hitch, and later said she feels comfortable with it being there. "If anybody's carrying guns or anything like that, they'll detect it before you come inside."

But another man looked less than thrilled to unload his keys and all the change from his pockets before stepping through the metal detector. Judge Sweeney acknowledged that some people, particularly in rural jurisdictions, think the detectors are a nuisance.

Mark Malloy, 21, did not seem to mind, though. He arrived to deliver a clerk's lunch order of macaroni and beef with a bottle of juice and a roll from Parker's Towson Complete Food Market when the hand-held scanner stopped him. "Metal lid on the Mystic [juice] bottle, that's my guess," Mr. Sacco said.

"Either that, or some very weird macaroni," Mr. Malloy said. Mr. Sacco let him through after solving that puzzle -- it was the foil keeping the roll warm.

Court officials still have not solved one puzzle: how to handle district courts that share a building with other tenants.

Both of Anne Arundel's district courts -- in Annapolis and Glen Burnie -- have other tenants, as do the district courts in Catonsville, Essex and Owings Mills. In most cases, everyone entering those buildings will be scanned.

But at the Owings Mills District Court, which will relocate in July 1997, the court occupies less than a quarter of the building, so scanning everyone who enters would be time-consuming. "We do not yet know what we are going to do at that location," Judge Sweeney said.

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