Courthouse security a major concern for Obion County
By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter
By JOHN BRANNON
Messenger Staff Reporter
Courthouse security — or the lack thereof — was a major topic of discussion Monday at a meeting of the Obion County Commission.
Hot and heavy went the debate for about a half hour. Commissioners expressed their concerns about a wide open and vulnerable courthouse where large crowds attend juvenile and General Sessions court sessions each week.
With news reports about school and workplace shootings nationwide and the courtroom shootings in Georgia, no location is immune to such modern madness.
“I’ve seen volatile situations here in the courthouse. It actually became physical. With the status of the world today, we can never say never … eventually, it’s going to happen,” said commissioner Dwayne Hensley. “People can be disturbed and have no regard for their own lives. We’re seeing it all around us. There’s nothing to prevent it from eventually happening to us. … We do need to do something, whether it be a private security company or hiring (more) deputies.”
Commissioner and budget committee chairman Danny Jowers said the commission has been put on notice “that we have lax security here.”
“We’re almost forced to do something. If we do nothing and something happens, we are going to be liable, maybe each one of us personally, I don’t know,” he said.
Commissioner Donnie Bras-well said the commission has known of this problem a long time and he thought there were long-range plans to address it. “Instead of jumping into this today, with the condition of this building, why don’t we start with something and build on it through the courthouse committee? Instead of voting on something all-inclusive and find it’s not going to work, why don’t we let the sheriff and the courthouse committee start with a plan and expand it?” he said.
Although commissioners agree that something needs to be done, they disagree on the funding required to support it. Some aver that initial expenditures would be just a start, that more expenditures will be required in the future.
In the end, commissioners voted 18-3 to accept the recommendations of the courthouse committee and fund a security program at a cost of $89,400.
Commissioners Robert M. Barnes, Jerry Grady and Jimmy Seals voted against the measure.
The debate began when commissioner Steve Goodrich spoke in his capacity as chairman of the courthouse committee. At its Sept. 17 meeting, the committee received a report from Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder about a recent assessment of the Obion County Courthouse.
The assessment, which had been prepared by Bryan Grisham, director of the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, addressed security problems, recommendations for corrective action, and costs.
Security problems in Grish-am’s report include:
• The courthouse has complete unrestricted building access, five unsecured entrances, no perimeter security during or after business hours, heavy dockets in three courtrooms, no segregation of parties and no weapons control program.
• There is a problem with prisoner transport in public area with no segregated ingress (entrance). Prisoners are forced to be taken through regular entrances with the public.
• There are overcrowded and dangerous courtrooms for general sessions and juvenile courts.
Grisham’s recommendations include:
• Closing the north entrance on the main floor with a 24-hour electronic access for employees only.
• Lock and install alarms on both basement entrances.
• Erect a “sally port” to the basement with dedicated transport-only parking with security gate and fencing. This would require excavation and a new doorway allowing access to the basement holding cells and elevator.
• Route all public traffic through the main east entrance and south handicapped entrance to a checkpoint manned by two deputy sheriffs in the north wing of the main floor lobby.
• Relocate vending machines to the north entrance or under the stairwell in the basement.
• Place a Portal magnetometer and X-ray machine at the new checkpoint for all public traffic routed upstairs or downstairs. Current magnetometer is serviceable but outdated. Replacement cost is $7,000. The sheriff’s department has an old X-ray machine, but it does not screen for explosives or organic substances. Replacement cost is $22,000.
Other projected costs include:
• Addition of two full-time deputy sheriff to man the checkpoint whenever the building is open. All court officers except one roving deputy could assume road duties when court is not in session.
• A total of $45,000 plus $14,000 in benefits for the two additional deputies.
Approved request by McGuire to apply for a Homeland Security grant of unspecified amount. “We won’t know until tomorrow how much (we can ask for),” he told commissioners.
In other business Monday, the commission:
• Approved a request by commissioner Jimmy Seals to ask TWRA to dredge about a mile of Bayou de Chien Creek in the vicinity of Walnut Log on the northeast shore of Reelfoot Lake. He brought a petition bearing 34 signatures of constituents who assert the creek is in dire need of attention. Silt has built up, trees have fallen, noxious aquatic plants thrive and prevail and the water level has dropped about 18 inches.
Seals said dredging would enhance boat access on the creek and where it joins Reelfoot Lake.
• Approved a request by McGuire to apply for a $225,000 grant to fund installation of a railroad crossing on Canadian National Railroad at the site of the new Ethanol Grain Processors (EGP) ethanol plant under construction near Obion. The local share is $25,000, but EGP would pay it.
Published in The Messenger 10.16.07