Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary Clemens is glad to have his staff feeling safer at the renovated and expanded Courts Complex.
"What's been beneficial about the new building is being able to introduce new security," Clemens said. "From [the] employees' standpoint, when someone comes up to the counter, they don't have to worry about a weapon. They can focus on serving the public and not worry about those security issues."
The two-phase $22 million project, begun in 1998, renovated three existing court buildings and connected them with an 83,000-square-foot addition that increased the building’s size to 150,000 square feet.
"It's been a tremendous improvement," Clemens said. "While the public walks in, while it's inconvenient, they know they're safe. There is a security presence, and they can go about their business."
BY THE TIME the second phase is completed in late fall, two security checkpoints will be in place to screen visitors to the Courts Complex, with one placed at the main entrance across from the Leesburg Post Office and the second in front of the area leading into eight courtrooms and three clerk's offices.
The Sheriff's deputies provide security for three circuit courts, two general district courts and one juvenile and domestic relations court, but on some days, they cover two additional circuit and juvenile and domestic relation courts. In January, they began staffing the second security checkpoint that includes a walk-through magnetometer and an x-ray device for scanning briefcases, bags and other items for prohibited items.
"We're the first people they meet. We have to be customer service-oriented to make the visit more friendly and pleasant," said Sgt. Mike Cox, courthouse security supervisor.
At first, the deputies wore the bailiff's uniforms of suit and tie, but some of the courtroom visitors were confrontational with the deputies, Cox said. The Sheriff's Office switched to the regular deputy uniforms and on Aug. 5 added key lockers for visitors to store prohibited items that are not illegal while they conduct their business. Deputies not working at the security checkpoints can wear either the deputy or the bailiff uniforms. The bailiffs are tasked with overseeing security in the courtrooms and are the only persons allowed to carry a weapon, which they conceal underneath their suit coats.
"There's an element of risk in the courthouse daily," said Sheriff Stephen Simpson. "That's why these additional measures are important to ensure the safety and security of the people who work and visit there."
Since the security checkpoints were installed, the Sheriff's Office has confiscated hundreds of items deemed as potential weapons, including knives, scissors, screwdrivers, pocketknives and items with a sharp or pointed edge, but has not had to make any related arrests. Previously, the bailiffs worked in the three courtrooms and escorted inmates to and from the jail to provide most of the court's security. They had to confiscate a small number of items, periodically asking visitors to hand over knives before a court session and held them until the end of the session, Cox said.
"Obviously they are not going to know if someone is carrying a secured weapon. That's the importance of the magnetometers," Simpson said. "We weren't able to check to see if someone had a weapon prior to coming in there. [Now] they're not getting through. "
COURTHOUSE security includes:
* The security checkpoints.
* The main control center, staffed by deputies who monitor nearly 50 video cameras located throughout the Courts Complex and several security doors.
* The duress and panic alarms in the clerk's offices, judge's chambers and courtrooms to be used for security intervention.
"If someone is threatening toward the staff or the general public, we do have communication devices to contact security staff," Clemens said, adding that in the past, clerk's office staff had to send someone or call to contact security. "Now court security staff can respond within seconds to a potential crisis."
Cox said, "The way the new facility is designed, we have the ability to communicate professionally to visitors and to employees in any situation."
* The closed circuit televisions that allow judges to communicate with inmates at the jail to select new court days and conduct other court business.
"For security reasons, it will be used more," Cox said.
* The inmate transportation system to and from the Courts Complex, which has seven holding cells able to accommodate up to 50 inmates awaiting court appearances. The inmates are transported and moved through the facility so that they never meet the public or the judges, who also use an underground parking facility and move separately from the public. The inmates arrive at a secured parking facility and are moved through secured hallways and separate secured elevators to reach the prisoner holding area, which is the basement of the court building.
In the past, the inmates were transported from the transport van and moved outside into the court buildings, where they used the same elevators as the public.
TO PROVIDE the additional security, the Sheriff's Office increased from 15 deputies to 24 deputies when the first phase of the project was completed in late 2001 and for Fiscal Year 2004 will be at nearly 30 staff members, including three supervisors.
"To have the building fully covered, the additional positions were necessary," Cox said.
The coverage includes exterior and interior foot patrols of the facility and the surrounding property. The deputies check for weapons and other items that may be abandoned for planned assaults or escapes and domestic or potentially volatile situations.
"I appreciate what the sheriff has done," Clemens said. "It provides better protection for the citizens who come in through the facility."