Most people entering the Surry County Courthouse simply walk around the gray frame of a metal detector that’s just inside the front door, maybe throwing a glance at the X-Ray machine sitting unmanned and unused next to it.
The courthouse does have security — the Surry County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for it — with bailiffs stationed in open courtrooms, video cameras that send a live feed to monitors in the sheriff’s office and panic buttons throughout.
However, many employees and officials that work in the building are ready for that security station to be operational.
“The sooner the better,” said Teresa O’Dell, clerk of courts for Surry County. “If there’s one place in the county that needs security it’s the courthouse.”
With legal conflicts the nature of the business that’s conducted in the courthouse, and a complex bureaucratic process adding fuel to the fire, “emotions run high,” O’Dell said.
Carolyn Comer, register of deeds, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s the times,” Comer said. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them, but we do not want to be one of those counties that has to say, ‘well if we only had security, lives could have been saved.’”
A security expert contracted through the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association assessed security at the courthouse, and the resulting report was provided to a committee at a July meeting, said Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson.
The group was comprised of representatives from courthouse departments including the clerk of courts, the register of deeds, the tax administration office and the board of elections. County officials from the sheriff’s office, the board of commissioners and county manager’s office also attended.
Besides reviewing the assessment, it gave a chance for those who work in the courthouse to share their opinions with those responsible for making any changes.
“They’re in the building every day,” said Don Mitchell, who oversees grounds and maintenance for the county. “We wanted to see what their concerns were, and we wanted to survey all the existing equipment.”
Mitchell said a proposal would be developed to present to the county board of commissioner’s for funding hopefully before the end of the year, “but it’s not a set time frame.”
Board Chairman R.F. “Buck” Golding, who was present at the meeting, couldn’t comment on the likelihood of such a proposal passing.
“We don’t know exactly what the investment would be for,” Golding said. “Living in the environment we live in today, I can understand some of those concerns. I don’t think we’d be meeting if it (courthouse security) were sufficient. We want to go about doing the right thing while keeping costs down.”
Besides the question of weather officers are needed at the front door, another concern is the lower level entrance near the tax administration office that bypasses the security station at the front entrance, and provides access to upper levels by way of the elevator.
Atkinson said disaster preparedness and procedures also needed to be re-evaluated.
“The bottom line is it’s time for eight-hour-a-day security,” Comer said.
The security station at the main entrance is manned only during Superior Court, if the sheriff’s office receives information about a potential threat or sometimes randomly, Atkinson said.
O’Dell said she didn’t think the machine had ever been manned during the nine months she’d been working in the building.
“Ideally we would have that thing manned every day,” Atkinson said. “We have to work with the resources we have.”
The sheriff noted that the equipment itself had been donated, at his request, by Mecklenburg County when they upgraded their own system about eight years ago.
Atkinson said it wasn’t yet clear if a funding request would be made for additional personnel for the courthouse, or if it would be needed.
“There are times when personnel are the only solution,” Atkinson said, “There are times when it’s not.”
Adding personnel is a recurring cost for the county, where making changes to physical structures or adding electronic equipment is a one-time expense, Atkinson said.
The sheriff looked back to 2006 when security at the jail was an issue. “Everybody said ‘hire more officers,’” but the department added surveillance cameras at an estimated one time cost of $60,000.
“It solved the problem,” he said, and since the cameras ability to document and record, “those cameras have saved us many times.”
An officer from the U.S. Marshals Service also made informal recommendations, Atkinson said.
The experts may find unexpected solutions, Atkinson said, “things people not familiar with security wouldn’t even think of.”
Terri Flagg can be reached at 336-415-4734 or [email protected]