Judges and court employees in courthouses across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge are raising an alarm about poor security in the wake of several incidents in which deputies have had trouble restraining angry, out-of-control people.
None of the incidents have involved weapons, but 18th Judicial District Judge William Dupont said he’s concerned that it wouldn’t be too difficult for someone to smuggle a weapon into courthouses in Iberville, West Baton Rouge or Pointe Coupee parishes.
He noted that, unlike in East Baton Rouge Parish, none of the courthouses in the 18th JDC have a single point of entry for the public staffed with armed officers and equipped with screening devices, such as metal detectors for visitors to walk through and X-ray scanners to examine briefcases, purses or bags.
And while there are screening devices for people to pass through when they enter individual courtrooms, Dupont said, the lack of a single entry point to the courthouse is a serious deficiency. He said someone could easily come in ahead of time for a proceeding and stash a gun in an empty courtroom.
“Anyone can bring a gun into that courthouse anytime they want — that’s the reality. It’s very lackadaisical when it comes to security,” Dupont said. “I’ve never seen anyone come in and check to see if there is a gun stashed inside the courtroom before a trial.”
The concerns have been pointed out to parish officials in three different reports from private and federal security experts since 1998. Each of the three reports, done by the U.S. Marshals Service, Louisiana Supreme Court and a private consulting firm, outlined ways to beef up security at district courthouses.
The reports say the Iberville courthouse should have only one public entrance where everyone is screened upon entering and that policies and safety protocols should be put in place to better secure the building and its employees.
“We owe our citizens who use the courthouse better security,” Dupont said. “Nothing has happened yet, but boy have we had some close calls.”
Dupont’s comments on security come in the wake of an incident in Pointe Coupee Parish last week in which an enraged man got into a wild physical altercation with sheriff’s deputies outside the courtroom of Judge James Best.
Best fired off a searing letter to Pointe Coupee officials on April 9 about the incident, describing how the 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 and escorted out of the courthouse.
Best’s letter references a second incident involving an irate man and police in which there was a violent wrestling match before the man could be subdued and order restored to the court.
Best called both incidents a breach of security.
“While I do not know the answer, nor do I suggest fault, I do know that security, more now than ever, is a most serious matter that must be addressed,” Best wrote.
“I anticipate financial resources will be the blame. Nevertheless, something must now be done.”
Dupont, who mostly presides over cases in Iberville Parish, said there has been at least two incidents involving prison inmates dashing out of his courtroom during criminal proceedings.
The most recent occurred in June 2013 when a man facing second-degree murder charges jimmied the lock on the door of the holding tank on the third floor of the Iberville courthouse and evaded authorities for 20 minutes by fleeing on foot and hiding under a nearby house.
Dupont has complained about security deficiencies at the Iberville courthouse for years.
The concerns over courthouse security are shared by employees in the 18th JDC as well.
Mark Graffo, clerk of court for West Baton Rouge Parish, said there are times even when his employees are nervous about their safety.
“If we had one entrance into the courthouse that was monitored by deputies and metal detectors, I think that would give us some comfort,” he said. “At least we’d know no one would be getting in here with a weapon.”
The West Baton Rouge Parish courthouse has only one metal detector and X-ray machine upstairs near its three courtrooms. In Pointe Coupee Parish, there’s only one metal detector, but it doesn’t work. Metal detectors are stationed outside of each courtroom in Iberville Parish.
In all parishes, the screening stations are manned only by armed police officers during court proceedings. And state law only mandates that sheriffs provide at least one deputy in each courtroom during proceedings.
Law enforcement officials in all three parishes acknowledge the problems and are trying to address them the best way they can.
Iberville Sheriff Brett Stassi said he intends to meet with parish government officials soon to address the security weakness at his courthouse.
And Pointe Coupee Sheriff Bud Torres said he’s beefing up police presence in the parish’s courthouse following last week’s incident.
Col. Richie Johnson, spokesman for the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, said they haven’t had any security breaches like the ones in Iberville and Pointe Coupee but any additional measures would require funding they don’t have.
“We would have to do some structural redesign to the building because we do have some internal flaws,” he said.
Officials say money isn’t the only challenge involved in improving security at the 18th JDC courthouses. Changes also would take consensus approval from the various parish governments, District Attorney’s Office and the respective sheriff’s offices in each parish.
But Dupont said the smartest approach would be for everyone with a vested interest in the issue to sit at the table and all contribute, ideas and money, toward solving the problem.
“Everyone thinks we have to do all the stuff now and it costs ‘this much money,’ ” he said. “You could phase in changes. Prioritize them.”
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