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Swain to beef up courtroom security

fr swainsecuritySwain County commissioners know they need to address security concerns at the county administrative building in Bryson City, but they are still torn on whether they need to secure the entire building or just the courtrooms.

The request for better security came from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge William Coward. In a letter to commissioners, Coward said keeping people safe in court was one of his most important duties. 

“The last thing I would ever want to see is the death or injury of an innocent witness, litigant, or court personnel, when I previously had the chance to implement security measures that could have prevented such a tragedy,” he wrote in his letter. 

Currently, the administrative building has a main courtroom and a secondary courtroom on one side of the building, but the medal detector can only be placed in front of one courtroom. There are days when both courtrooms are in use at the same time. When that happens, the secondary courtroom has no way of screening people for weapons or other contraband. It happened just last week when Coward was presiding over the main courtroom and District Judge Jerry Waddell presided over the smaller courtroom. 

“We cannot, in these times, allow that situation to continue,” Coward wrote. 

Coward met with the sheriff, clerk of court and the county manager to discuss a plan for building modifications that would allow security for all the court-related offices in the building. 

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Sheriff Curtis Cochran said they came up with a plan with a minimal cost to the county. The plan is to create a separate public entrance for both courtrooms by building a wall with double doors on the left side of the building and closing off the backdoor entrance in the main lobby.  

On court days, people would come in the main entrance to the building and if they were going to court, they would be directed through another set of double doors where the metal detector would be set up. An armed officer would be staffed on those days to monitor the detector. If they were going to the tag office or other administrative offices to the right of the building, they wouldn’t have to go through a detector. 

While putting up a wall and closing off the back entrance wouldn’t be that costly —probably less than $5,000 — the set up could create a whole other list of problems. For one thing, the public restrooms are on the right side of the building. People in court would have to leave the secured area to go the restroom and have to go back through the metal detector again each time. Secondly, the entire lobby area is crowded on court days, and Cochran said trying to funnel 300 people through the metal detector and into a smaller space would cause serious congestion. 

Commissioner David Monteith said he wanted to see the metal detector at the main entrance so the entire building would be protected. 

“Protecting the rest of the building is just as important as protecting the court system,” he said. “The day is going to come when something happens and I think this would deter it.”

County Manager Kevin King said having it at the main door would present different problems. He said the only way it would work is if the entire entrance way was redone so that there is a separate door for entry and exit instead of a central double door. The exit doors would be locked from the outside — only allowing people to open them from the inside. Count employees have keyless entry cards that allow them to enter through side doors in the building. The county would have to decide whether to prohibit that if the commissioners decide to secure the entire building. 

Monteith asked King and Clerk Cindi Woodard if employees felt safe in the building.  

Woodard said there were times when certain people made employees uneasy because of their demeanor or because they are wearing a bulky coat or backpack. 

King said he could recall a handful of altercations during his time with the county, including someone pulling a knife and several altercations with members of the public in the tax office and in the inspections department.

Cochran suggested placing panic buttons in each office so employees can alert law enforcement if something happens.  

King said he would get construction estimates on both suggested plans and report back to commissioners a their next meeting. He said he would like to see the project completed by the end of June. 

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