Courthouse security addressed

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 3, 2007

WINTON – While Hertford County Commissioners are considering the future of the courthouse, security will have to be a major consideration.

According to Hertford County Sheriff Juan Vaughan, measures to improve courthouse security have been taken, but there is a limited amount that can be done because of the physical plant itself.

“I’m satisfied with the cameras and door security, but there are still issues of us having too many entrances and exits to the courthouse building,” Vaughan said.

In his nearly 10 years as sheriff of Hertford County, Vaughan has made strides in keeping the courthouse secure and making it safer for those who use the facility.

“The sheriff has done a very good job in enhancing security with the available resources that he has with this present building,” Chief District Court Judge Alfred W. Kwasikpui said. “I’m in agreement that this county is very much in need of a new courthouse with security features that are appropriate and necessary for this time.

“At the time this courthouse was built, there were not the same security needs that we face presently,” the judge added.

Vaughan began upgrading safety features in the building almost instantly after becoming the county’s top law enforcement officer.

After taking the oath, the sheriff quickly moved to have a professional from the Justice Academy in Salem who specializes in courthouse security inspect the facility. The suggestions which came from the expert were those he already knew.

Those were adding security to the doors and putting in cameras.

While courthouse shootings in Georgia and other areas nor the tragedy of September 11, 2001 played a part in the sheriff’s desire to upgrade security, the latter event did help.

“While we didn’t react faster because of those events, I think money became available more quickly and that allowed us access to funding to implement the ideas which were in place,” Vaughan said.

With the funding, Vaughan was able to install 13 video cameras in the Hertford County Courthouse and made four of the five entrances accessible by key card entry. The only door open to the public is the main entrance in the front of the building.

The sheriff said security at the courthouse, which is the responsibility of the sheriff, has been one of the biggest issues he has tackled since taking office.

Changing the courthouse to only one main entrance has been an important step, according to District Court Judge Tom Newbern.

“I think it helps tremendously,” he said.

Another key step in making the courthouse safer, according to the judge, was the elimination of parole meetings in the back part of the courthouse.

“They now meet in the side building which allowed us to secure the entire area back here,” Judge Newbern said. “That has meant an increase in security for both the district and superior court.

“The sheriff has done everything possible to make sure we are safe and secure considering the layout of the courthouse,” he added. “Because of the physical layout with the number of doors and some of which have to be open to allow public access, it still creates security risks.”

The judge said changes made to the judge’s chambers have helped those presiding over court.

“I think the placement of the judge’s chamber is appropriate and secure,” he said. “We have unimpeded access to the courtrooms through secured corridors.”

Other issues which have plagued judges and officers in the Hertford County courthouse include hearing in the courtroom and maintenance of the building.

While declining to talk about specific needs of the current building, Sheriff Vaughan indicated one problem area was hearing in the Superior Courtroom.

“In the Superior Courtroom, you can’t hear well and when the heat is on, you can’t hear at all,” Vaughan said. “With the heat on in there, it’s too hot and with it off, it’s too cold.

The Hertford County Commissioners have discussed the courthouse in several recent meetings and Commission Chairman Curtis A. Freeman has indicated his desire to make the courthouse a priority and will place in on the agenda for discussion in the coming months.

Freeman and Vice Chairman Howard J. Hunter III both indicated there needed to be a long-term solution whether that is renovation or erecting a new structure.

The Sheriff said if a new structure were to be erected, he had ideas about how to alleviate safety concerns.

“If we build a new courthouse, I would like to see it connected to the current Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center,” Vaughan said. “We could close the street with the approval of the town of Winton and build the new building between my office and the current courthouse.

“It would make it more secure if we didn’t have to transport inmates outdoors at all, much less across a public street,” he continued. “I think we could manage to build the new courthouse and then tear down the existing structure after it was completed and thus not interrupt service to our citizens.”

The idea actually is similar to how the current structure was built. It appears from photographs found by Judge Newbern the back half of the current facility was built and then the old courthouse was torn down to build the Superior Courtroom.

The street that is now in front of the building was narrower in the 1950s when the old courthouse stood on those grounds, but was widened when the current facility was built.