As a result of over a year and a half of research and study aimed at putting in place security measures to make the St. Charles Parish courthouse safer, a courthouse security committee is preparing to make suggestions for security improvements to the building in the next few weeks.
The plans for security changes are the result of a mandate by the Louisiana Supreme Court requiring each judicial district throughout the state to investigate and provide a plan for improved security for courthouses.
Judge Emile St. Pierre heads the Courthouse Security Committee in St. Charles Parish that also includes representatives from the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, Parish President V.J. St. Pierre, Clerk of Court Lance Marino, Assessor Tab Troxler and Registrar of Voters Brian Champagne.
“We have met twice a month laying out various ideas and laying out the ordinance that is going out to the council very soon,” Judge St. Pierre said.
The current plan calls for renovations on the northeast corner of the courthouse building. That entrance would be the only one open for use by the public at large. All bags carried by residents entering that door would go through an X-ray machine.
Sheriff Greg Champagne said deputies from his office will oversee the security system once it is in place.
“We plan to establish a screening area at that location with restricted access at the other three entrances,” Champagne said. “We will have surveillance capability, the details of which are confidential.”
In addition, the fire alarm system will be upgraded to allow for voice commands and a courthouse security office will be located in the basement.
Anyone can currently enter through any one of four entrances in place now and visitors are only required to go through a security checkpoint when going into the second floor area containing the Parish Council chambers, courtroom, judge’s chambers and the District Attorney’s Office.
Judge St. Pierre said funding has already been set aside by the Parish Council for the renovations, but they have not yet voted on the plans. If the plans are accepted by the council, the project will have to go out for public bid.
“This is going to be introduced in September and probably by year’s end we should have something in place,” he said.
Although St. Charles Parish has not had much trouble with people bringing weapons into the courthouse building, there have been problems on a few infamous occasions.
In 2008, the then 71-year-old Julius “Ducky” Sellers Jr., who formerly was elected as both St. Charles Parish sheriff and St. Charles Parish assessor, was arrested for bringing a gun into the courthouse building and flashing it to parish government staff.
On another occasion, photos of a St. Rose man who made comments on a social media website about shooting up a courthouse were posted in the building, but it was later determined that he meant the Jefferson Parish courthouse.In fact, St. Pierre said in his 30 years in the courthouse, 13 as an assistant district attorney and 17 as a judge, he does not remember there ever being a serious incident.
“I am not aware of any instances of crises,” he said.Despite that he said it is still important to be prepared.“It’s a sign of the times. You can’t be too safe. We have the ability to do it so we should be conscientious enough to do it,” he said.
Judge Lauren Lemmon said although there are downsides to the planned security changes, she is in agreement with St. Pierre.
“I think it is necessary. I’m sorry about the inconvenience, but it is necessary as far as the safety of not just judges, but all courthouse employees and the general public too,” she said.