Courthouse must upgrade security, officials say

Option includes single entrance for public

September 09, 2011 at 9:04 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Now that the department of motor vehicles has been moved out of the St. Charles Parish Courthouse to a stand-alone facility across the street, parish officials agree that it’s time to enhance security at the government headquarters.

Sheriff Greg Champagne, Councilman Paul Hogan and Parish President V.J. St. Pierre have all made recent statements calling for increased security of the more than 30-year-old courthouse, but that would likely mean an overhaul of the building.

Champagne, who represented the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association on the Supreme Court’s task force on court security, said he has been studying ways to enhance security since Hurricane Katrina. At that time, the hallways were filled with people from St. Charles and nearby parishes who packed the DMV.

“That area was not designed to be a public access office,” Champagne said. “This was designed to be a secure corridor for judges, district attorneys, prosecutors and Sheriff’s Office people to come in.

“After Katrina, we were trying to conduct emergency business and the state hustled up to get their driver’s license office opened up and we were really being distracted at that time.”

Though members of the public continued to enter through the back of the courthouse to get to the DMV on the first floor for years after Katrina, the main security point is located on the second floor of the building.

“The only court security that we’ve had traditionally has been on the second floor to protect the judges, the courtroom, judge’s chambers and the district attorney,” Champagne said. “Those rooms are locked from the back and there is no access. Anybody that is going to the courtrooms has to go through the metal detector and it’s been that way for 30 years or so.

“Removing the driver’s license office enhanced security, but everybody agrees that it’s time to do more.”

Hogan said the need to upgrade security became even more apparent several weeks ago when authorities placed pictures around the building asking courthouse personnel and visitors to be on the lookout for a St. Rose man who allegedly threatened to “take a pistol to the courthouse and shoot up the place.”

Though it was later determined that the threat was being made towards the Jefferson Parish Courthouse, Hogan said that measures still need to be taken to enhance security.
“With the world today, I feel that it is only a matter of time before something dire will happen at this courthouse at the hands of some deranged individual,” Hogan said. “Security will be too late for the one who would be victimized.”

Champagne said that the ideal situation would be a single entry point for the public with a metal detector and an X-ray machine. That way, everyone who comes into the courthouse would be screened. Since there are now two main entrances, Champagne said that would require modifications to the building.

“You’re talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to modify the building,” he said.

Champagne said that thumbprint scanners could also be installed to create a secure entrance for some courthouse employees.

Adding another checkpoint would require additional deputies to man the station in addition to the deputies that are already assigned to all of the courtrooms and a supervisor that monitors the hallway.

“Those deputies are tied up doing that, so if we are going to move a checkpoint downstairs then you are going to need at least two people working on door entry,” Champagne said. “If the courthouse is open from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., then you are talking about shifts of people, not just two.”

To have a first-class security system, including  metal detectors, X-ray machines, thumbprint scanners at certain doors into the courthouse and additional employees, would cost several hundred thousands of dollars, Champagne said.
But even with the high cost, St. Pierre agreed that it is time to make changes.

“We are still in negotiations with Sheriff Champagne and will meet with the district attorney and judges soon to come up with a game plan for upgrades to courthouse security,” he said. “We hope to have the upgrades installed sometime next year. Funding remains an issue, but we know with certainty that something is going to have to be done.

“We’ll push to do it in the most efficient manner possible.”

View other articles written Jonathan Menard

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