Officials clash over courthouse security
Morgan County Commission president Brenda Hutchinson and Chief Deputy Tony Link exchanged sometimes heated words about the security arrangements for the new courthouse at the April 15 commission meeting.
In a passionate exchange of views, Hutchinson and Link were at odds over security screening of citizens as they enter the courthouse.
Link, who is in charge of courthouse security for the Sheriff’s Department, presented the commissioners with a list of proposed security changes and guidelines describing how the sheriff plans to enforce security at the new facility.
The changes were suggested by Arthur Angus, marshal of the West Virginia Supreme Court, after he inspected the new courthouse security setup. Costs were estimated at $21,000.
Visitors to be screened
Angus recommended adding security access card readers on the inside of four exit doors that allow access to the courtrooms on the
second and third floors. This would prevent an unauthorized person from opening a door from the inside to let others in, Link said.
In addition, Angus and the sheriff want the security control center for the building to be moved to the center area of the first floor.
This would mean that all visitors to the courthouse would be screened for weapons soon after entering the building, as in the Berkeley County Courthouse.
Hutchinson said she could understand if they screened people heading for the second or third floor courtrooms, but not those on the first floor where county offices are located.
“What bothers me is we are asking our taxpayers to pay for all this, and then we are going to treat them like criminals when they come through,” she said.
“If someone really wanted to get in there, do you really think they are going to come in and walk through the magnetometer and put their stuff in a little box? They are going to come in with a gun and still get in,” Hutchinson said.
But, said Probation Officer Danielle Robertson, often people don’t come in disgruntled, but later become so.
Hutchinson asked if she realized this is a rural county and many people carry pocket knives.
“With all due respect, knives don’t belong in the courthouse. Times change,” Robertson said.
Hutchinson replied that they were already making a major change by screening people as they go up to the court system.
Link said that if visitors to the first floor aren’t screened, someone could come in with a weapon and head up the back steps to the courts.
“The sheriff is going to get sued and the county is going to get sued,” he said.
He also pointed out the possibility of a bomb being placed on the first floor.
“The deterrents that will be in place will make it a lot harder,” Link said.
“If Mr. Angus doesn’t feel that the building is secure, he will not let the judges, magistrates or probation move into the building,” he said.
Probation Officer Sean Bryner explained that if the first floor isn’t secure, a person going into the county clerk’s area or the tax office could get an employee in an isolated area and steal their security swipe card.
Robertson said having security on the first floor protects everyone.
“I just feel like if I have to worry about my security all the time like that, I might as well stay home and not even come out,” Hutchinson countered.
She added, “If they really want to get somebody, can’t they get them outside of the courthouse?”
“No offense, but you aren’t ticking people off everyday like we are, locking people up,” Link said.
“We’re not? Do you really want to go there?” Hutchinson asked.
Link admitted he didn’t.
“It’s the people’s courthouse. They are coming in to do the people’s business, pay their taxes, talk to the assessor – service oriented things – and then we are going to treat them like criminals from the very first minute they walk in the door,” Hutchinson said.
At one point, Hutchinson referred to a cover letter attached to the Sheriff’s Department security guidelines.
Link had written that he would entertain ideas from the commissioners but that the guidelines were how the sheriff intended to operate.
“In other words, whatever I say today, you aren’t going to listen,” Hutchinson said.
“Here we go again. You are making this way too personal, Mrs. Hutchinson,” Link said. “I will listen to whatever ideas you have and if I need to make changes, I will do it. But I am not going to have you go through every page of this guideline saying ‘This needs to be done and this needs to be done,’ because it won’t happen.”
Link said he gave the commission the document as a courtesy.
“I am just letting you know that I don’t approve,” Hutchinson said
“I know you don’t approve. You don’t approve of us, or our department, or me,” Link replied.
“That’s not true. I just think there are things in here that I think need to be fixed,” Hutchinson said.
“The Supreme Court says you run it like this and that’s how it is going to be done,” Link said.
Dress code bickering
Hutchinson also told Link that she didn’t agree with the dress codes in the guidelines. They specified slacks, shirt, tie and jacket for attorneys. She asked if attorneys usually come to court looking professional.
They should, but they don’t always, Link said.
He asked Glen Stotler, who was at the meeting for another matter, if he wore a jacket to court, and Stotler answered, “No.”
Link said the dress code is just guidelines, not regulations.
Hutchinson suggested they be rewritten to say attorneys have to dress professionally.
Another part of the dress code specified no visible thongs. Hutchinson noted this was aimed at females. She asked why the guidelines don’t mention men who come in with their pants “half way down their rear.”
“These are the same guidelines that Berkeley County uses and they don’t have any problems,” Link said.
Hutchinson asked if deputies were going to carry rulers to measure miniskirts.
Link said the bailiffs and deputies would use their own judgment.
In the end, Link and Hutchinson agreed to meet and review the document together.
Link also said he could set up a meeting between the commissioners and Supreme Court officials to discuss courthouse security.