Changes at Pointe Coupee courthouse made to increase security after judge complains of courtroom clashes _lowres

Photo provided by GoogleMaps -- Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse

Pointe Coupee Parish officials implemented several changes at the parish courthouse in New Roads this week in an effort to improve security.

Anyone entering the courthouse, whenever court hearings are taking place, will only be able to do so at the courthouse’s front entrance. Visitors will have to show identification and sign in before they pass through a metal detector manned by an armed sheriff’s deputy.

The changes come more than a month after state District Court Judge James Best fired off a scathing letter to parish officials for what he called “security breaches” after witnessing several near-violent courtroom outbursts between law enforcement and visitors.

The recent changes, which began Tuesday, are just the beginning of the Police Jury’s effort to upgrade security at the historic courthouse and improve the building’s antiquated facade as well.

Best said Wednesday the increased officer presence and single entry-exit point are satisfying steps toward easing not only his fears, but courthouse employees’ as well.

“I’d rather see that than fighting in the courthouse,” Best said. “The sheriff is going overboard trying to cooperate with us, and the Police Jury has been extremely cooperative as well. It appears to be a money issue but the Police Jury is trying to do what it can now.”

Prior to Tuesday, there were multiple public entrance and exit points at the Pointe Coupee Parish courthouse, and the lone metal detector was located on the second floor, outside of one of the two courtrooms, and it didn’t work.

Best preferred a setup similar to the courthouse in East Baton Rouge Parish where the public is allowed access through a singular point of entry.

In his April 9 letter, Best described how a man got into a fierce argument with another person during a contentious court hearing. He said six law enforcement officers struggled to get the man under control before escorting him out of the courthouse.

Best’s letter references a second incident involving an irate man who had to be wrestled to the ground by police before the man could be subdued and order restored to the court.

Best hasn’t been the only judge in the 18th Judicial District — which encompasses Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes — who has complained about courthouse security.

Judge William Dupont, who mostly presides over cases in Iberville Parish, over the years has expressed similar concerns about security deficiencies at the courthouse in Plaquemine.

But Dupont was repeatedly informed by Iberville officials that the parish couldn’t afford many of the security improvements he desires.

However, Pointe Coupee Parish leaders said they felt obligated to address security at the courthouse in New Roads immediately after the most recent incidents.

State law requires that local sheriffs provide at least one armed deputy in every courtroom during proceedings, and parish governments are responsible for building maintenance and upgrades at courthouses.

“I was dreading it, thinking, ‘Oh, God, what are we going to do?’ ” Police Jury President Melanie Bueche said Wednesday. “Of course, we’re also concerned, so we allotted some money to add an extra deputy at the courthouse to man the door downstairs on court days and repair the metal detector.”

Bueche is hoping the parish can get the Legislature to approve a bill that would allow the Police Jury to form a courthouse commission, which will oversee the funds generated through increased court filings costs at the Clerk of Court’s Office.

That money could be used to pay for additional security measures and much-needed infrastructure improvements at the parish courthouse.

Leaders in Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes did a similar thing to generate money the parishes used to build new courthouses.

“I read stories about East Baton Rouge and Livingston doing this; that’s why I’ve taken this route and brought it to the Police Jury, and it seems appealing to them,” Bueche said. “People using the courthouse would be the ones actually paying for the things we need to do.”

The parish is making inroads with local legislatures to get a bill into the 2016 legislative session.

“Right now, we’re just hoping the changes we made this week will be sufficient until we can expand things more,” Bueche said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.