HANCOCK COUNTY — At the Hancock County Courthouse, visitors can come and go as they please without security screening.
Though several officers from the Hancock County Sheriff’s department regularly stand watch and provide security for the building, more extensive safety measures, like searching visitors’ bags to make sure they’re not carrying a weapon, are reserved only for high-profile trials.
That’s about to change.
County officials are now shopping for an X-ray machine and metal detector to permanently install in the facility in the coming months. All visitors will have to send belongings through the X-ray machine and walk through the metal detector before proceeding through the facility, said Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Maj. Brad Burkhart, who recently outlined the plan to the county’s board of commissioners.
Burkhart detailed incidents that have made staff and visitors at the courthouse uneasy. Though signs posted throughout the courthouse warn that weapons aren’t allowed inside the facility, Swiss army knives and other potentially dangerous items have been confiscated from visitors when temporary security measures were put in place, Burkhart said.
Burkhart presented a bid to the county commissioners for a $3,700 metal detector that would light up at the detection of metal and a roughly $23,000 X-ray machine that can scan purses and briefcases, with pictures of potential weapons revealed on a computer screen.
The commissioners agreed the security is a good idea. They asked Burkhart to seek bids from another company before moving forward with the purchase.
Commissioner Brad Armstrong said security at the courthouse has become a significant priority for the board, and there’s still momentum behind the effort.
In the summer, county officials decided to limit access to the building, keeping all entrances locked except one, in an effort to tighten security. Burkhart said the department has also increased its presence at the courthouse. At least one deputy is on site at all times, he said.
Once the new equipment is installed, the department will need to add at least one deputy to operate it, Burkhart said.
“The more uniforms you have in there, the more awareness you’ll have,” he said. “I think this will improve security by leaps and bounds.”
Burkhart plans to return to the county commissioners to request approval for the purchase at the board’s next meeting, 8 a.m., March 1, at the Hancock County Annex, 111 American Legion Place.
The decision to enhance safety has been heralded by area attorneys as a common-sense step to protecting both staff members and visitors to the building. They say security measures in place at the local courthouse pale in comparison to those of surrounding counties.
Holly Lyons, a Greenfield-based attorney who led an effort by the Hancock County Bar Association to improve security at the courthouse, said the local facility is one of only a couple in the state she knows of without a metal detector and X-ray machine.
In nearby Henry County, for example, visitors put all their belongings through an X-ray machine, pass through a metal detector and may not bring certain items, including cellphones, in the building.
Lyons said those measures help keep everyone at the facility safe.
“It’s not just the people in the clerk’s office or the judges and attorneys who are potentially at risk — it’s anybody who goes into that building,” Lyons said.