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Jackson works to shore up security at judicial center

fr securityLate last month, Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts wrote a letter. “He kind of drew a line in the sand,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.


Letts used warm phrases like “sincerest desire,” “amicable manner” and “atmosphere of cooperation and congeniality.” But he also stressed that it was advisable to “avoid unpleasant enforcement proceedings against the Jackson County Commissioners which would visit unfounded accusations of governmental-judicial dysfunction upon county leadership.”

Judge Letts wrote to the county commissioners about security concerns he has with Jackson’s judicial facilities. His correspondence was irritable.

“The overall lack of security has been of paramount concern to me for some time,” Letts wrote. “After my prior requests for improved security over the past six years the minimum requirement of one secured entrance is no longer negotiable.”

Commissioners discussed Letts’ letter during a recent workshop. The county attorney had already advised that the judge’s request must be appeased.

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“Can we meet that January first deadline?” asked Commissioner Mark Jones. 

Wooten assured his commissioners that Letts’ January deadline for improved securities at the justice center was flexible.

“I think we can demonstrate with Judge Letts that we’re moving the conversation forward,” Wooten said. 

The commissioners entertained some potential security enhancements. They threw a rough-sketch floorplan on the projector and discussed how the county might address the specific concerns outlined by Letts. One of what Wooten called “some very early conversations.”

In addition to requiring Jackson County to limit the entrances into the justice center — which also houses county offices and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office — to one, Letts is also requesting other changes. A metal detector must be employed at the single entrance, and a law enforcement officer must be posted whenever the building is in use, including during public meetings such as commissioners meetings. In addition, other entrances to the building will need to be rewired as emergency exits, or as entryways for staff with swipe cards.

Letts said that Jackson’s judicial facility doesn’t cut the modern mustard. One entrance, he explained, is the norm these days and affords a more secure courthouse. Plus, it makes sense when considering staffing multiple entrances with guards and metal detectors. 

“It’s just the easiest way to control access, control security. It’s also the most efficient with manpower,” Letts said. “It just kind of checks all the boxes.”

Security is obviously an important element for any judicial center. Emotions can run hot during court proceedings. Victims must be kept safe, defendants must be protected. Judicial officials and staff must also be assured a certain level of safety. 

Judge Letts said he can’t cite a particular instance that convinced him that the Jackson facility needed improving. That’s the point, he explained. 

“I think the idea is to lead in this area, to make sure that no one gets hurt,” Letts said. 

The judge originally requested that the commissioners get back to him with some firm plans detailing security upgrades by early December, followed with full implementation by the start of the new year. He’s now backed off those deadlines, based on assurances from the county. 

“As long as we’re making progress,” Letts said. 

In October, representatives from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association will be visiting the justice center to conduct a security assessment. The county is also working with outside architects to determine the best way to address the security concerns. 

“It does look like we can [address concerns] without a lot of modifications,” said Wooten. “Not significant modifications, but some modifications will be required.”

Cost estimates are still elusive. So is a timeline, though Wooten estimated that the improvements could be made within the first quarter of 2015.

“We’re moving forward with that as quickly as we can,” said Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam.

The chairman said that the county wasn’t fighting Letts on the security front. Commissioners, he stressed, understand the importance of the issue.

“The security issue, I can understand where the judge is coming from. From the security side of things we’re pretty porous,” Debnam said. “We’re all security conscious. You look at things happening and say, ‘Oh, they could never happen here.’ But what if they did? Then who’s to blame?”

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