Providing a safe environment: Madison Co. incident prompts other counties to look at courthouse safety policies
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After 29-year-old Cory Daugherty, of Earlham, pulled out a gun at a recent sentencing hearing at the Madison County Courthouse, county officials have raised concerns regarding the courthouse’s lack of security and the ability to have firearms in the building.
However in Dallas County, officials already addressed this issue when a “no-weapons” policy and front entrance security was mandated to be added to the courthouse over 7 ½ years ago.
Sheriff Chad Leonard, who started in 2007, said he was first apprehensive of the mandate but has now seen how beneficial the ruling has become.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the court-ordered security because I knew it would take away staff from my department,” he said. “However, the county was able to hire additional officers to help with staffing, and over time, I have seen the security become very beneficial. I think it provides a sense of security for employees working in the courthouse.”
Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart and his staff agree that they do feel safe performing their day-to-day functions in the courthouse.
“My staff in the Recorder’s office feels very safe,” Airhart said. “Having three deputies in the courthouse gives an added sense of security to all that visit the courthouse, including myself and our staff. The deputies are here at a moments notice if they are needed and are very good to ensure all patrons are out of the courthouse at night before leaving, even waiting in our office if a transaction with a patron runs past closing time to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Three officers, Brandon Stoll, Mark Shepherd, and Adam Jacob, patrol the courthouse Monday through Friday between the hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and when high profile cases are held Leonard staffs accordingly.
“When there are sentencing days or a big trial comes to town we have additional officers on staff in case of an outburst,” he said. “Since we have high security we do see quite a bit of high-profile cases so we have to be prepared.”
The stationed officer or officers can control the X-ray and metal detectors from a kiosk-like area at the front of the courthouse, which Chief Deputy/Jail Administrator Doug Lande said provides a safe and efficient first point of contact.
“It’s a really nice system where the officer can operate the machines from behind the counter,” he said. “Otherwise we would have to have two officers at all times stationed for the X-ray and the walk through machines.”
The south side entrance of the courthouse is locked and only pre-screened employees can enter the building with a badge.
To comply with the courthouse’s no-weapon’s policy, even pre-screened employees are randomly checked for weapons, Lande added.
Officers in the courthouse are given a variety of duties including prisoner transports, prisoner safety, courtroom security for both judges and magistrates, and acting as a leasion between the Clerk of Courts, County Attorney and Sheriff’s Offices. The officers on staff also are provided with an Alert Advanced Readiness Training specifically geared toward courtroom security.
“It’s no different than when there are heated council meetings,” Leonard said. “If there’s a hot topic we will usually get a call to come to the meeting. It’s an added security feeling for everyone involved.”
Lande, who was one of the first staffed courthouse deputies, said he’s heard bot positive and negative comments from the public about courthouse security.
“We have around $267,000 budgeted for the courthouse so it is costly, however, it’s stopping someone at the door and preventing those actions right away,” he said. “Last week, a deputy on staff had to take a weapon off of an indvididual who had a permit to carry. I don’t think there was any bad intent but the deputy had to remove the weapon.”
Although both Leonard and Lande feel there are enough staff present in the courthouse, the department is in the process of sending a survey to all employees to see what they like and don’t like about the current security. The Sheriff’s Department will bring the results back to Chief District Court Judge Arthur Gamble to see if changes need to occur.
Currently, Dallas as well as Polk counties are the only counties in Iowa’s Fifth Judicial District to screen visitors with metal detectors.