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Courthouse security would make Davison County a rarity

Three of South Dakota's 66 counties screen people entering their courthouses.

A Daily Republic telephone survey of South Dakota counties found that only Minnehaha, Lincoln and Pennington counties have full-time courthouse security personnel.

In all three of those county courthouses, visitors are screened for weapons by law enforcement using X-ray machines and metal detectors at building entrances.

The remaining counties, including Davison, do not regularly screen courthouse visitors. Some counties provide courtroom security, but metal detectors are not regularly used. There are 66 counties in the state.

The findings were no surprise to Davison County Commissioner Denny Kiner.

"I've been in just about every courthouse in the state, and there's nothing," said Kiner, commenting on the general lack of courthouse security in South Dakota.

"Davison County is no different from any courthouse -- Sanborn, Spink, Jerauld, etc. -- I can walk into just about any courthouse and nobody knows I'm there. I think people need to start paying attention."

Many counties still have a sheriff's office within the county courthouse, providing a built-in security presence, but in most cases there is no one assigned to screening people entering the courthouse.

Kiner has advocated increased security in the past, and his zeal was reignited in June when county Treasurer Christie Gunkel -- complaining of an increasing number of irate and abusive customers in her office -- requested full-time security in the courthouse.

Kiner acknowledges that an irritated taxpayer and an attacker who poses a physical threat in the courthouse are different issues, but he believes the county has a duty to ensure the safety of all its employees.

Kiner floated a motion for a full-time deputy at the courthouse, but his motion died for lack of a second. Other commissioners said they're not certain the cost of a full-time deputy at the courthouse could be justified.

Another county's proposal

In June, Hughes County Sheriff Mike Leidholt floated a request before his county's commissioners for an extra full-time deputy for courtroom security. The request was designed as a heads-up to signal his intentions to the commissioners, he said. If approved, the new position would not be funded until 2014.

The extra person would give Leidholt enough manpower to make the courthouse security a regular assignment rotation among his deputies, he said. The Hughes County seat is Pierre.

On Tuesday, Hughes County commissioners approved Leidholt's $110,000 request for a full-time deputy, benefits and equipment, leaving the item in the county's 2014 provisional budget.

But County Manager Kevin Hipple said the request may not survive intact.

"I suspect there will be some additional cuts before the final budget is approved," said Hipple, who added the deputy would supply security only when the court is in session. Everyone entering the court would not screened.

"Sheriff Leidholt said to do that would take at least three deputies and he's not making that request at this point in time."

In June, Leidholt was named president of the National Sheriff's Association at that organization's convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Attitudes toward courtroom and courthouse security run the gamut in America, he said.

"We have some sheriff's offices with huge staffs and then we have some with only two or three deputies, just as we do in South Dakota," he said.

Judge perspectives

First Circuit Judge Timothy Bjorkman hesitated to address Davison County's security needs without first discussing them with the commissioners, but they are a concern, he said.

"It's an issue that needs to be worked out and I'd like to see it done in a comprehensive plan. My focus is the duty I have as a judge, which is to protect the safety of people who come into my courtroom, and that's a bigger picture."

Bjorkman said Davison County's multiple court locations, which include two rooms on the second and third floors of the courthouse, plus magistrate court and felony court at the county Public Safety Building on Miller Avenue, present some special security challenges that must be addressed.

Bjorkman's concerns are for general courtroom, rather than courthouse, access. The latter, he said, would be up to the commissioners. The state's Unified Judicial System has installed security measures within many courtrooms, but those do not include full-time security personnel.

Kiner believes that courthouse and courtroom security begin at the courthouse front door.

There's always courtroom security coverage during contentious trials, Kiner said, but no deputies are in place to limit access to the courtroom.

"The problem is they can get clear up to that floor without any checks or balances," he said. "You try to get into a courtroom in Sioux Falls and see what it takes. You have to sign in and go through metal detectors -- the whole nine yards."

Security was always in the back of retired magistrate judge Pat Kiner's mind during his nearly 28 years on the bench. Much of that time was spent in court sessions at the Davison County Public Safety Center, across town from the courthouse. Pat Kiner is a cousin to Commissioner Denny Kiner.

About full-time building security personnel at the Public Safety Center, Judge Kiner said flatly, "There isn't any."

Sheriff Steve Brink said the Public Safety Center courtroom's proximity to his office in the same complex allows for a quick response, but there is no full-time deputy assigned to any courtrooms in the county.

"I'd love to have armed security when there's court, but we just don't have the manpower," he said.

A corrections officer is always in the court when it is in session, Brink said. "They're not armed, but they're trained in how to handle prisoners."

Deputies can also use the Internet to access surveillance cameras in all courtrooms in both buildings when courts are in session, he said, and courtrooms can be monitored in the jail's control room.

Portable metal detectors are sometimes deployed for criminal cases, Kiner said, "But statistics show that a lot of the cases where courts have had problems have been domestic cases, and we don't ever have security for those."

"If something happens, judges can push the (panic) button, but it takes awhile for law enforcement to get there."

Historical attack

A domestic issue was the background for a deadly courthouse attack that occurred during a September 1967 divorce trial at the Pennington County courthouse in Rapid City.

Despite threats from Ray Bivins, her angry, estranged husband, Alma Bivins had filed for divorce.

Before Judge Tom Parker could render a final verdict in the case, Bivins pulled a pistol and started shooting, gunning down his wife and her attorney. Parker threw his judge's chair and hit Blevins with a glancing blow. Bivins recovered and shot Parker in the stomach. Parker, though wounded, pressed the attack. Assisted by Ray Bivins' attorney, Parker knocked Bivins down and stunned him with a kick to the head.

Judge Kiner recalled one case at the local Public Safety Center when a defendant threatened Kiner's family. The man was prosecuted for threatening a public official and later apologized, but Kiner said the episode was unnerving.

Cases in which protection orders have been issued are among the most concerning for judges, Kiner said.

Serial killer Robert Leroy Anderson once appeared in Kiner's court to be advised of his rights. That the handcuffed Anderson was under heavy guard was comforting, Kiner said, but he still recalls the lack of building security.

"Who knows who could have come in, because there were no protections from outside people at that time -- there were no metal scanners and I don't think they did any searching of anybody coming in."

Sheriff Brink said he prefers complete building security at both court facilities in Mitchell, including the courthouse, but the reality is that options will be "fairly costly to extremely costly."

"I side with Commissioner Kiner. I'd like to see more security than what there is, but as things now sit, there's no way I could put a guy over there eight hours a day."

If funds could be found, the sheriff said he'd want a trained deputy on duty and not a hired security guard. "We'd need someone who would know how take care of a problem when there is one."

Judge Kiner said he understands the budget constraints county governments face.

"The first time a bad incident occurs, then the budget money will come," Kiner said, "but hopefully that won't be the case."