Sheriff works to keep courthouse secure

Scanners, armed deputies help to keep contraband out of Balto. County site

November 27, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Around the Baltimore County Courts Building, it is known simply as "the box."

To a layperson, it looks like a prop for a gang war.

For Sheriff R. Jay Fisher, it is a reminder of why security has been one of his top priorities during his first year in office.

The box, taken out for sheriff's office training sessions and occasional judiciary show-and-tells, holds the collection of items seized from people entering the courthouse in recent years.

There are brass knuckles with ugly-looking spikes, belt buckles that hide knives, a compact that looks like a lipstick but twists out a blade instead.

"It's amazing that people attempt to get these types of items into the courthouse," Fisher said recently, examining some of the wares.

In Maryland and beyond, sheriff's deputies and security guards who protect courthouses are constantly on the lookout for these sorts of hidden weapons, and for any object that could be used as one.

And with the number of people going into courthouses increasing, there are more people for them to search, said Fred Wilson, the director of training for the National Sheriffs' Association.

In Baltimore County, security was a central concern when Fisher took office almost a year ago, he said. He quickly assigned armed deputies at the courthouse's entrances - previously they were staffed only by security personnel who had no power to arrest or subdue potential attackers.

He also installed airport-quality scanners and increased training.

It didn't take long for him to get his introduction to the world of courthouse contraband.

Soon after he had taken office, security officials discovered that the umbrella a woman was taking into the courthouse concealed a sword.

"Now, why would you have a sword in an umbrella?" the sheriff asked.

Many times, sheriffs around the state said, court-goers do not intend to cause harm with the items that get confiscated.

"People get a little bit lax about remembering what's in their pockets," said Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV.

But they are always worried that someone, in the often emotional atmosphere of the courthouse, will remember something like a pocketknife and will try to use it violently.

And it is not just pocketknives. In Johnson's nine years at the Arundel courthouse, deputies have collected brass knuckles, credit cards with concealed blades and even a stun gun.

In Howard County, Chief Deputy Sheriff Scott Mergenthaler said security personnel confiscate about 15 items a week, but said the majority of those are generally innocuous items that could be used as weapons. Deputies return the items when the owners leave court.

"Guns, knives, they're readily identifiable," Mergenthaler said. "But we also look for anything else - letter openers, other sharp objects that could be used as weapons as well. We've always done that."

Court security officers are as - if not more - concerned about domestic and relatively minor criminal cases as they are about murder trials. In serious criminal cases, the defendant is already in custody. In these other cases, the parties come in from the street, and may be seeing each other for the first time in months.

"People who come to court, they usually don't come here because they want to be here," Mergenthaler said.

Recently in Baltimore County Circuit Court, a defendant tried to flee Judge John G. Turnbull II's courtroom after the judge handed down his sentence.

"He was a very large defendant, and he took offense to me sending him to prison for car theft," Turnbull said.

It took sheriff's deputies and police officers to subdue the man.

Turnbull said Fisher has done an "excellent job" as sheriff, and said he feels comfortable with courthouse security.

"I think the word gets out," Fisher said, holding one of the brass knuckles from the box. "If you have some sort of deadly weapon on you, we will get it."

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