Courthouse security pumped up in Port Townsend
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Visitors to the Jefferson County District Court and Superior Court may be required to pass through screening due to an increase in security.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — An increased number of visitors to the Jefferson County Courthouse may be subjected to a screening process if they want to enter the courtroom area, a result of a new program instituted by the Sheriff's Office.

“More people will be screened as they enter the courtroom area. The metal detector will have a larger presence,” said Sheriff Tony Hernandez on Thursday.

“Sometimes, there are trials that are sensitive in nature or where threats have been received, so we are looking for ways to make the courtroom area more secure.”

Hernandez said he has no schedule for screening and that it will be instituted on an as-needed basis.

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans, who personally witnessed several violent acts at courthouses when he worked in Texas, said he thinks any increase in security is a good idea.

While there have been no such incidents in Jefferson County, Rosekrans said judicial personnel have received threats from disgruntled citizens,

“We do need more security,” Rosekrans said.

“Most people who come to the courthouse aren't happy about being there, unless they are getting a marriage license or finishing an adoption.”

The screening process was in place Wednesday but was being performed as a test of the system, according to officers who were running the equipment.

Screening process

When screening equipment is being used, foot traffic up to the second floor will be routed onto a single staircase, culminating in a checkpoint on the second-floor landing.

The second staircase will be used as a downstairs path.

Those arriving on the elevator will not be allowed onto the floor until they have passed through the screening machine.

Jefferson County had no security machines until 2010, when the magnometer was purchased for just under $5,000 for use in the first trial of Michael J. Pierce, a high-profile double-murder trial in which the Quilcene man was convicted of killing timber industry icons Pat and Janice Yarr on March 18, 2009, in their farmhouse near Lake Leland.

Pierce, 37, now faces a retrial on the murder charges March 4 after the state Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.

Since 2010, the machine has been stored in the jury room and brought out for high-visibility trials.

The present increase in courtroom security corresponds with a reorganization of the Sheriff's Office, consolidating the 16 deputies who are on the courthouse and the jail details.

The new program will rotate these deputies between the jail and the courthouse.

Hernandez said the restructuring will have no financial impact because he is reallocating existing resources.

Hernandez said the increased security isn't a reaction to any violent incident but is something he has considered for some time.

“In the past, jail staff was only in the courthouse when they were transporting inmates, and the courthouse staff was rarely in the jail,” Hernandez said.

“Under the new structure, it increases our ability to move personnel back and forth and be used in the areas where they are most needed.”

Hernandez said those attending a time-critical courthouse hearing may want to arrive early since it could take more time to get into the building than usual.

“I've been looking at ways to provide better service using our limited resources,” Hernandez said.

“If we rotate people through the different jobs, they will be less complacent.

“This is a more efficient, economical model.”

Superior Court Clerk Ruth Gordon said she is gratified that courthouse security is being taken more seriously.

“This is a creative solution to improving security,” she said.

“It improves communication. People who work at the jail will better understand what we do, and we will better understand what they do.”

In the past, Gordon has said she has felt vulnerable in the courthouse.

Assessor Jack Westerman said he has never felt unsafe during his 38 years in the courthouse, but he welcomes the extra measures.

“In a small county, anything can happen,” Westerman said.



Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: February 01. 2013 1:57PM
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