By Benjamin Gohs
Top Charlevoix County officials are taking a look at the security of their main governmental building … and the price tag on improvements could be as much as half-a-million-dollars.
According to an Aug. 6 security assessment of the Charlevoix County Building—which houses several courts in addition to the county clerk, treasurer, equalization, planning and other integral offices—there are more than a dozen steps that could be taken to increase the building’s level of security.
“In light of recent tragic events involving various courts and court personnel, the vulnerability of our justice system, its employees, patrons and the facilities need to be reviewed, enhanced and improved,” Court Security Specialist Dennis D. Mac Donell stated in his security assessment. “Judges, judicial employees and visitors in our courthouses often become the victims of hostile acts. Most violence is interpersonal, in that it is an attack by one person against another.”
He added, “It may involve a spouse or coworker who brings a weapon into the building to harm someone, or, it may involve extremist groups or gang members attempting to intimidate a witness or juror.”
According to Mac Donell, most courthouse violence is characterized by a specific court case, though it can be a symbolic act intended to make a general statement.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Specific security risks identified, and some recommendations made, in the report have been omitted from this story—a decision made by the Boyne City Gazette—to help protect the county building’s security.
Courthouse security challenges arise due to several factors:
Mixed tenant occupancies – other governmental or nongovernmental entities occupying the same building
Secure spaces and pathways – the need for distinct spaces and circulation patterns designed to separate judges, court staff, attorneys, witnesses, victims, juries, prisoners, opposing parties, and the general public
Secure interface (i.e. the courtroom) – the need to maintain order and safety within the courtroom when all of the above parties come together to resolve matters
Courts can effectively secure employees and visitors by implementing the following elements:
• Architectural elements – such as separate public, private and prisoner circulation systems, holding cells and blast/bullet resistant constructions
• Equipment and technology – such as surveillance cameras, metal detectors and x-ray machines
• Personal and operational procedures – including security staff, training, weapons policies and emergency procedures
Mac Donell laid out 14 recommendations for increasing security at the Charlevoix County Building.
“This is a unique building because it is a culmination of two older buildings being joined together by a third,” he stated. “The original structure, the sheriff’s office, was built around 1910. A county building was erected nearby in 1956 and then in 1996, the two were joined together with the third building.”
Mac Donell added, “This collection of building projects has resulted in a ‘U’ shaped building with (numerous) numbered entrances; at least 10 of these entrances are accessible by the general public.”
According to Mac Donell, many of his recommendations can be accomplished by reviewing, rewriting and implementing policies and procedures.
“Procedures may be inconvenient to some but they do increase the safety and security for the judge, employees and the courts’ visitors,” he stated.
Mac Donell’s report indicates the implementation of any of his suggestions should be based on a risk assessment, available funding, equipment and staffing.
“Although structural improvements can increase security, an important risk-reducing advantage would be to raise the security awareness level for all occupants of the court through planning, preparedness and training,” he stated.
The following security recommendations are not listed in order of importance:
1. Security Committee – In order to accurately identify what needs to be addressed, it has been recommended that a security committee be formed. The committee should include representatives for the judges, prosecutor’s office, sheriff and jail, facilities manager, emergency manager, court administrative and operational board, court employees, other county departments, vital internal and external stakeholders.
2. Establish a Security Improvement Plan – Mac Donell advises that the security committee conduct a risk assessment to determine what personnel, offices and functions must be protected, as well as potential threats.
3. Review and Train to the Security Policies – The security committee should develop security policies and procedures for use by all court employees. Written procedures—concerning issues like lock-down and evacuation—increase the chances of saving lives and reducing injuries and helps maintain order.
4. Single Entrance – All of the entrances should be locked and secured except for one main public entrance and exit.
5. Entrance Screening – According to Mac Donell, ideally there would be at least two screeners and an armed observer in a screening station during court hours. One of the screeners would monitor people passing through a magnetometer and/or hand-held metal detector; the other would be assigned to a line scan or x-ray machine. The armed observer’s job would be to intercept an armed patron attempting to enter the building.
6. Control Station – A control station could be established and staffed with a court security officer to monitor the video cameras located inside and outside the courthouse during the building’s operational hours.
7. Video Surveillance – Cameras must be located according to a comprehensive site plan that would be reviewed and adopted by the security committee.
8. Courtrooms – The public entrance doors to the courtrooms appear to be locked and secured when the court is not in use, and this practice should continue. The court security staff needs to thoroughly inspect the courtroom for items or people accidentally or intentionally left behind after each court session.
9. Customer Service Counters – All court service counters should have protective panels installed. It is also suggested that other service counters inside the county building be similarly equipped.
10. Interior Doors – The goal of securing “employee only” doors is to ensure safe and secure work areas and to protect against inappropriate interaction between court employees, in-custody defendants, probationers, the participants in the judicial process and the general public. Any door that serves as a security door should remain closed and locked.
11. Monitor and Test Duress or Panic Alarms – Duress alarms are a vital link to court employees’ safety and should be installed at specific locations.
12. Parking – If the number of entrances are reduced to one, it could mean fewer people would park on the streets surrounding the county building, leaving such parking open for employees. Also, it was suggested that the parking area in between the Charlevoix County Clerk’s Office and the 33rd Circuit Court area be fenced-in and used only by certain court and county employees.
13. District Court Holding Cell – Due to the volume of in-custody defendants at the district court level, consideration should be given to erecting a temporary holding cell.
14. After Hours Use – After hours use of the building should be controlled and limited.
Perspectives of those who use the county building regularly in a professional capacity vary.
• Charlevoix County Sheriff W. Don Schneider said security can always be improved.
“We’re having discussions now about making the courthouse more secure with a single point entry, and that is just one of the suggestions,” he said. “In courtrooms presently, during most court hearings, we have armed court bailiffs in the courtroom to prevent any problems that may crop up, and we have security screeners who do deter knives and cell phones and things like that.”
As addressed in the Mac donell report, Schneider said transporting prisoners from the jail down to the county building is not as secure as having the jail and courthouse on the same site but added that there is little that can be done about that.
“It could be better but I don’t think they’re going to build a courthouse up by the jail just to resolve that issue at this point,” Schneider said. “It would be nice but I don’t see that anywhere on the horizon because I don’t know if it is feasible financially.”
Schneider said people can do themselves and the court security a favor by simply leaving all knives, cell phones, iPads, cameras, or other potential weapons in their car or at home before going to court because they are not allowed inside.
• Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney Allen Telgenhof said he has never seen any significant security issues, and feels safe in his day-to-day work at the county building.
“Other counties have gone to more security, such as metal detectors and personnel posted at the entry doors such as Antrim County and Grand Traverse County,” he said. “I think maybe one point of entry for the public would be helpful, but I would leave that to the county commissioners as more security means more money.”
He added, “Increased security is a trade-off since most ways to make the building more secure will result in imposing on the public in some way.”
• Boyne City Attorney Joel Schraw of Schraw & Associates said he feels comfortable walking into the region’s different courtrooms but said he has noticed disparity from county to county and even court to court.
“We have exposure to multiple courtrooms in several counties and I think it is interesting that, even within our own county building, there are different procedures in the different courtrooms,” said Schraw. “There are no security measures, other than the bailiffs, in district court but in circuit court there is a metal detector and wanding (hand-held metal detector) by bailiffs prior to entering the courtroom.”
He added, “I always thought the lack of consistency within each county was unusual and the same is true for Emmet County and, in counties like Otsego, there really isn’t any security measure as far as metal detectors or individual searches.”
Schraw said, in his six years of practice, he has not seen any security issues that caused him any concern.
“Safety is a legitimate concern and it is something we should be protective of but there needs to be a bit of balance,” he said.
• Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen said he definitely thinks some of the suggestions in the Mac Donell report could be implemented in a cost-effective manner.
And, he did not dismiss the idea of relocating the courts up near the sheriff’s office and jail complex on Garfield Street in Charlevoix.
“I’ve heard that it would be upwards of a half-million-dollars to implement some of the suggestions (in the Mac Donell report) but that’s just a figure that’s been thrown around. It hasn’t been quoted or RFPd (Request for Proposals),” Christensen said. “I’ve suggested it before: why don’t we have a courthouse in between the sheriff’s office and the health department building? There would be a separate county building and courthouse building and you could secure the courthouse … it’s a win, win, win.”