County officials weighing courthouse security measures

October 31, 2012

The Washington County commissioners Wednesday discussed preserving the historical integrity of the century-old courthouse while keeping the building as safe as possible during a time of tight budgets.

Washington County Purchasing Director Randy Vankirk raised the possibility of seeking estimates of the cost of several security features, such as restricting access to judges’ offices solely to card holders and using cameras to monitor others who are seeking entrance.

“This is very, very preliminary,” Vankirk told the commissioners. “I’m just the middle man.”

Seeking estimates seemed to raise some hackles.

“I’ve gotten some calls from lawyers about making that building into a fortress,” said Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, a retired state trooper and former Washington County sheriff. “This has been percolating out there for the past six, eight months.”

Maggi said he didn’t want to see an initially small expenditure escalate to a quarter-million dollars. “Is there a long-range plan?” he asked.

For the past several years, courthouse visitors have had to have bags X-rayed and walk through metal detectors at entrances manned by sheriff’s deputies on Main Street and West Cherry Avenue.

Last month at the trial of a local man charged with attempted homicide and aggravated assault, the defendant’s father was escorted out of the courthouse after causing a commotion. When the jury’s deliberations in the same trial became heated, Judge John DiSalle intervened and then declared a mistrial.

President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca said both incidents will be reported to the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, which tracks courthouse security issues.

“No one’s planning to turn it into a fortress,” she said.

The U.S. Marshals Service evaluated security at the courthouse in 2006 and recommended a five-year plan. “We’ve never completely finished it,” O’Dell Seneca said. “We didn’t do it all at one time so it wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive.”

She hoped to have police conduct a training exercise in the courthouse enacting how to subdue a single shooter, but the more than year-long presence of scaffolding for dome and related restoration has kept this from being scheduled.

Courthouses became targets for violence in the 1980s and O’Dell Seneca said the mix of hardened criminals, litigants and victims can be a volatile one that jeopardizes both the public and court employees.

The county will be receiving an infusion of cash from a $4 million Marcellus shale impact fee, and the judge said the county cannot cry penury because it has a $15 million surplus.

The county’s general fund preliminary budget of $72 million shows the surplus whittled to $7.6 million and a $1.04 million deficit.

“We are always updating security, not only in this complex, but the offices of the magisterial district judges,” O’Dell Seneca said.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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