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Court security fears grow

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Circuit Court Judge Pat Smith wants better security in Davison County’s courtrooms.

Smith, who appeared with Sheriff Steve Brink before the county commissioners Tuesday at the courthouse in Mitchell, said he wants to seek both short- and long-term security solutions to ensure the safety of those in the courtrooms. Security has also been a longtime concern of Judge Tim Bjorkman, who also presides in Mitchell courtrooms, Smith said.

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“While it would be great to have armed bailiffs assigned to each judge,” Smith said, “we must balance that with what’s realistic.”

Smith said public shootings in the news have placed a greater focus on security,

“Shootings pose the most obvious danger, because they are quick, violent and deadly.”

Smith, who was appointed to the bench last year, said he attended judge school in Reno, Nev., where security was a major topic.

There he learned that risks in courthouses are not limited to big cities but are also present in smaller towns and rural courts that lack security screening equipment. Some of the greatest risks are not from criminal trials, he said, but from divorce or child custody hearings that can elicit strong emotions and potentially violent outbursts. One Nevada judge was shot by a distraught father in a custody action.

“My immediate concern would be to try and keep metal out of the courtroom,” Smith said.

Sheriff Brink has been responsive to special requests in the past, Smith said, but Smith would like to have someone regularly available to screen court participants with a handheld metal detector wand.

The split nature of Mitchell court facilities creates some concerns.

High-risk criminal trials are typically held at the county Public Safety Center, which is attached to the jail. That complex has a high law enforcement presence that is a natural deterrent to misbehavior and a walk-through metal detector is available there if needed. There is no metal detector at the main courthouse, where other trials occur, and the building is unscreened and open to the public.

Smith said he has become increasingly concerned about security in juvenile trials, where participants come into the courtroom from home without going through any screening.

“I’d like to see us take steps to prevent problems before someone gets hurt,” he said.

Brink said high-risk trials can always be moved to the more secure Public Safety Center, but he needs another full-time deputy to adequately address court security at both locations.

That deputy would be specifically assigned to court security, he said, for the 15 days per month the courts are in session. The remainder of the time, the deputy would be a high-visibility security presence at the downtown courthouse.

Brink said the deputy must be certified so that he, or she, would be able to carry a sidearm.

The position, he estimated, would cost about $40,000 a year with training and other expenses included.

The job could be boring, Brink said, “but this person’s job would be court security and we need someone who is dependable. That person would be a liaison between me and the judges.”

Commission Chairman John Claggett said he would like to see a comprehensive plan for court security and directed Brink to put together firmer numbers and write a job description for the security position. No timeline was set for further action.

North building

Commissioners received an update on the commissioners’ room being readied at the county’s newly renovated building on North Main Street, the former home of Central Electric.

No date has been set to move into the new space, but Commissioner Kim Weitala said desk configurations and other design ideas were discussed recently with representatives from Brown & Saenger. Weitala said it’s likely the room will feature a U-shaped commissioners table; an 80-inch to 90-inch flat screen for the public viewing of displays; a speaker’s table with podium; and a press table with video displays. The room will be hard-wired for television feeds, computers and microphones, Weitala said. Auditor Susan Kiepke said the room could be ready for occupancy by December, depending on the delivery time for interior furnishings.

Other offices in the building already are occupied by the county health nurses.

Other business

In other business, the commissioners:

  • Heard Auditor Susan Kiepke say Dusty Johnson will be a keynote speaker at 1:15 p.m. Thursday at the county fairgrounds building for the Southeast Central District meeting of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners.
  • Approved the surplus designation of four used county vehicles so they may be sold, and later opened 16 sealed bids on the vehicles and approved the following high bids: $5,160 from Andrew Krohmer for a 1994 Ford F250 with snow plow; $765.07 from Brad Clark for a 2002 Chevolet Astro minivan; $600 from Roger Collins for a 1995 Ford Explorer; and $777.77 from Philip Aylward for a 2006 Ford Crown Victoria.
  • Approved a bid of $3,755 from Golden West to install smoke and heat detection systems and panic alarms at the north county building.
  • Heard from Highway Superintendent Rusty Weinberg, who reported a blown engine in one of the county’s two aging front-end loaders for which he recommended against engine repairs that would cost about $10,000; instead, the damaged machine will be sold for parts with the other front-end loader next spring as part of a package deal, and the county, which was expecting delivery of two new loaders in December, will ask the dealer to move up the delivery schedule on one loader.
  • Approved, acting as the lead county for a 2012 Homeland Security grant, a transfer agreement giving two pair of night vision goggles worth a total of $8,060 to the Mitchell Police Division.
  • Noted the absence of Commissioner Denny Kiner, who was attending real estate classes.
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