GREENFIELD — Access to the Hancock County Courthouse has been limited to one door on the building’s east side as part of an effort to tighten security.
The modification is the first in a much-anticipated series of updates county leaders have planned that they say will make the courthouse safer for employees and visitors.
Discussions about upgrading courthouse security have been ongoing for several years, said Brad Armstrong, president of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners. Talks started between the county’s elected officials — many of whom work in the courthouse — and officers with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, who are charged with providing security in the building.
Discussions became more serious after the county’s judges and members of the county’s bar association separately voiced concerns about security, as well, Armstrong said. They came to the commissioners expressing concerns about accessibility to the building and what they perceived as insufficient security personnel to handle an increasing number of high-profile cases, which could pose safety risks.
“The courthouse was built in a simpler time,” Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver said. “As it stands now, it’s not conducive for security. And I don’t think anyone believes those (security) threats will decrease anytime soon.”
Now, officials are taking the first steps in easing safety concerns.
Three of the four entrances to the building now will be locked at all times, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, Hancock County sheriff’s chief deputy. Alarms that will sound if doors are opened from the inside are being installed on the north, south and west entrances, and signs have been put in place warning people to use those doorways only in an emergency, he said.
Plans are in place to install metal detectors at the east entrance as early as November, and proposals for hiring more security guards have been brought up at county government meetings, Burkhart said.
Culver said he knows the safety concerns courthouse staffers have expressed are ones felt in many workplaces, but government buildings where accused criminals are part of the regular traffic flow are at a higher risk.
“People tend not to be happy to be here,” the judge said. “We’ll occasionally see some hugs after a wedding has been performed or an adoption has been finalized. But for the most part, people are in the courthouse for a bad reason.”
The courthouse could be a target for an active shooter or anyone who might have anti-government feelings, Culver added, although he suspects “someone cracking under pressure” during a legal proceeding is the most likely threat.
Alarm systems and metal detectors are a great start, but Burkhart said he believes the county needs to seriously consider hiring additional guards to staff the courthouse. Bailiffs direct visitors and keep order outside the courtrooms on the second and third floors, but there is rarely more than one armed officer on the courthouse’s main level.
Reserve deputies or road patrol officers often will step in to provide extra security during high-stakes criminal cases, but more eyes are needed during regular business hours as well, Burkhart said. He’s asked the Hancock County Council to consider setting aside money to hire additional courthouse monitors.
Armstrong said at least two additional guards will be needed to monitor the new metal detectors when they are installed.
He spoke during a recent Hancock County Council budget meeting to express his support of these new hires being worked into next year’s budget.
“I think times are changing, and we do need more security over there,” he told the council. “You can staff up when court is in session; and 20 minutes before court (starts), someone could gain access.”
“People tend not to be happy to be here. We’ll occasionally see some hugs after a wedding has been performed or an adoption has been finalized. But for the most part, people are in the courthouse for a bad reason.”
Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver, on the need for greater security at the courthouse