With four unsecured entry points in the building, Commissioner Paul Higdon told the board at a recent meeting that he had concerns about the overall safety of the building. He said he was particularly concerned about female employees working on the basement floor with the probation office next door.
“I want to provide a safe work environment for employees and a safe environment for our citizens, and I don’t think we’re doing it in the courthouse,” he said. “People can walk anywhere in this building.”
Other counties have already taken measures to better secure their courthouses and administrative buildings after receiving strongly worded recommendations from judges holding court in those buildings. For example, Jackson County Commissioners recently completed renovations to their administrative building to satisfy recommendations from Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts. In September, the building became a one-entrance-only facility with a security guard and metal detector stationed at the door. The renovations cost the county more than $300,000 plus the cost of hiring additional security to guard the door.
Swain County recently made some minor renovations in the administrative building at Letts’ request though it wasn’t as costly. While there are two courtrooms in the building, the metal detector was only placed in front of the larger courtroom on court days and the other courtroom was not guarded. The commissioners spent more than $5,000 to build a partition in the building and moved the metal detector to the front of the building to check everyone entering either courtroom.
Superior Court Judge William Coward has not made the same demands for security improvements in Macon County, but the county doesn’t want to wait for that call.
“It would be a whole lot better to work on it proactively instead of getting an order from the bench,” said County Attorney Chester Jones.
Sheriff Robbie Holland told commissioners that any recommendations would likely include doing exactly what Jackson County did with its building. However, Holland said it might save Macon County money in the long run.
“Right no we have two to three courts with officers and metal detectors at all of them,” he said. “Instead, we could just have one at the main entrance.”
Holland said he remembered a courthouse security study being done some years back that probably included a list of recommendations. None of the commissioners could recall such a report, but County Manager Derek Roland said he would try to locate it.
Higdon also brought up the fact that the courthouse and other county governmental property are designated “gun free zones.” If someone has a concealed carry permit, Higdon said they should be allowed to carry their gun onto government property.
“If you’re a concealed carry permit holder, they shouldn’t be restricted in protecting themselves,” he said. “I want to go on the record as opposing restricting employees from protecting themselves.”
Commissioner Kevin Corbin said if the county lifted the gun ban in government buildings for employees, then it would have to lift the ban for everyone with a concealed carry permit. As a concealed carry permit holder himself, Corbin said he respected everyone’s right to protect themselves but also sees the problems it could present. For example, the issue of allowing teachers to carry guns came up after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting a few years ago. Corbin said the problem with that is that an officer could accidentally mistake a teacher for a perpetrator and shoot them during a situation like that.
“The issue is more complex than that,” he said.
Holland, who considers himself “very pro-gun,” said not everyone with a concealed carry permit was properly qualified to safely discharge a firearm. Many people offer concealed carry classes, but he recommended everyone take the class offered through the sheriff’s office to ensure proper training.
“I would like all of you to take our class for eight hours and see how easy you can get your handgun permit,” he said.
At the suggestion of the board, Holland said he would begin to form a committee of experts — lawyers, judges, law enforcement and other county employees — to explore ideas for security improvements and whether the county could or should allow people in the courthouse to carry firearms. The committee will bring back recommendations to the commissioners.