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Addressing the Clare County Commissioners at their Oct. 16 meeting were District Court Judge Joshua Farrell and Clare County Emergency Management Director Jerry Becker. Farrell began their presentation by thanking the commissioners for their commitment to providing court security.
“I certainly want to thank all the Security Committee members and this board and previous boards for continuing to work together for the safety of not only our visitors, but all of our court employees,” Farrell said. “There are ever-present risks inherent with the type of activities that are conducted in this building and that could range from these meetings, to courts, to all of our county employees.”
He reminded that there had been a security audit in 2017 wherein the Chief of Security with the Michigan Supreme Court had come in and done some blind observations and did some interviews with building personnel. After that, a report had been prepared and presented to the Board of Commissioners.
Farrell said that over the previous six to seven years, some “baby steps” had been taken to add security measures to make the building safer for everyone. He went on to describe the Security Committee as being comprised of department heads and the courts working together, and that it had adopted some additional protocol for presentation and BOC approval.
He then listed the committee’s findings and recommendations which were adopted by the department heads: county clerk, county treasurer, county prosecutor, all the judges, corrections department, Clare County Sheriff Department and the court security officers.
Farrell said the next step in what the Security Committee would like to do includes: 1) Closing and locking the north door [prohibiting entry/exit along Main Street]; 2) The west door between the clerk’s office and sheriff’s department be locked, with keycard access only; and 3) Moving the current security station from its present location over to the double doors that separate the lobby from the full-length east-west corridor [by the vending machines]. This would necessitate screening of all visitors to the clerk’s or treasurer’s offices in addition to all court offices and courtrooms.
The judge explained that each of these areas plays a part in court functionality: Recovery Court participants, paying fines and costs through the treasurer’s office, the 55th Circuit Court being handled by the county clerk – all in addition to the offices in the court wing of the building.
“This would enhance the current measures we have in place,” Farrell said. “The nice thing in, this comes with no additional cost to the county. This would go along with our fourth recommendation, in that we’ve always had a concern about tagalong entries, where an individual would enter and hold the door for other individuals.”
It was stated that Becker had proposed additional training be provided to individual staffs, along with notification there could be disciplinary action taken if that security measure were to be breeched, i.e., holding doors open for others or propping doors open.
“The fifth proposal is that we would simply recommend that no weapons be permitted by anyone in this area,” Farrell said. “This has been presented to the Gladwin Board, as well. There would be no weapons allowed in those areas under this new protection without Chief Judge approval.”
He said someone could make a formal request as done in Gladwin, where the department of corrections officers made request, and court security is exempt as are department employees. This step would allow the sheriff’s department and court security to know who has a weapon should a circumstance arise.
Farrell reiterated that these recommendations are “baby steps” being made toward compliance with the Michigan Supreme Court audit. He added that these are not extreme measures that would cause disadvantage to visitors.
“I want to assure this board that we have very, very professional court security personnel,” Farrell said. “They work very expeditiously to get people through the security stations in a matter of seconds. They’ve seized a countless number of weapons over the last several years. I believe they have received unanimous support from all the judges in the work that they’re doing right now.”
He said there was no desire to inconvenience visitors or employees – that the goal is to have a safe experience for everyone.
Becker added some information about what the Security Committee had done in the previous month or so.
“We did a lockdown drill last month in the courthouse,” Becker said. “I do have the after-action report from that. So, we’re going to be working toward some corrections of what we found in that lockdown drill.”
He said an antenna had been added to enhance coverage throughout the building, and also that radios had been deployed throughout the courthouse in areas which had been found to be deficient. Those areas now have radios tuned to the court security channel and have immediate communication with Central Dispatch.
“The security group voted to work with the Emergency Facility Bomb Threat Plan that we already have in place, that was last updated in 2017,” Becker said. “We’re going to work to enhance that and take the things from the 2002 template the Supreme Court passed on to us to work with … take parts from that and incorporate them into this. The Cardiac Plan on the agenda today coming before you for approval will be an addendum to our Emergency Operations Plan also.”
Discussion then turned to the problem of parking, and the inconvenience which could arise from closing off the north door. However, it was noted that security is the prime concern for employees and visitors alike, which obviously outweighs the habit of parking in a certain area.
“We certainly don’t want to create a greater burden on individuals,” Farrell said. “But we do believe that, outside of our major court days, the south end and east end provide very quick, accessible access to the building.”
Chairperson Jack Kleinhardt spoke of complaints he has heard about parking and that employees seem to have preferential parking.
“I’m not arguing with you,” Kleinhardt said. “We have to be able to designate some areas, so when grandma and grandpa come to pay their dog license … we have to be able to convince reasonable people that what we’re doing is in their best interest.”
Undersheriff Dwayne Miedzianowski, who espoused his support of strong building security, also touched on the parking issue.
“With all respect, that’s on us,” Miedzianowski said. “The department heads have to hold their employees accountable. I get it, none of us want to go out in blizzards, right? It is what it is. For public safety, department heads have to tell their employees. We paved that back lot by the old ballfield – how many cars park there?”
More discussion brought out the ultimate goal of protecting all building personnel by moving the security screening station to the south door, where everyone entering the building, regardless of destination, would go through screening. That in turn led to the observation that the recent renovation expense for bulletproof glass may have been unnecessary if everyone entering the building is screened. Commissioner Mark Fitzpatrick pointed to this as another example of why it is necessary to think long term to ensure county dollars are being spent wisely.
The tight security measures at the state Capitol and the Midland Courthouse, as well as the fact the Gladwin Courthouse now has a single access point were all noted.
“The public recognizes the threat out there,” Kleinhardt said. “They also see the shootings at the schools, Walmart – it isn’t just here.”
Commissioner Mark Fitzpatrick added that, while people may resent increased security measures at the County Building while road patrol dollars are cut, that if there was an incident in the courthouse, sentiment would change to “Why didn’t you do more?”
“There’s always more heat after the event,” Fitzpatrick said. “You should’ve, could’ve done more.”
“The people who will say that to you now – it will be different later if it happens here,” Miedzianowski said. “You’ve got to protect the people in this building; I know some people don’t like it.
“They expect us to deal with things out in the field differently than their expectation for you protecting them in this building. The building will be bigger to them than how many deps you have on the road.”
“It’s only going to take one incident to happen in this building,” said Commissioner Dale Majewski. “Then the finger will be pointed at us – why didn’t you do something to protect? Did we do everything we could?”
It was then pointed out that an armed person with the intent to harm a specific individual – if thwarted in the attempt – will invariably turn that rage and need to do harm onto anyone nearby.
“Statistically, when these things happen, they don’t walk in with a gun and they’re just looking for the one person,” Miedzianowski said. “Because now that you’ve seen them with a gun and they know you’re going to call the police – they take more innocent victims. Look at all the studies … when they come in with a weapon, people in the way are innocent victims.”
Kleinhardt pointed out the number of shootings nationwide is in the hundreds – and most aren’t at courthouses. He then questioned how far the protection should go, i.e., should the road commission be protected?
Miedzianowski brought up the fact that a few years prior, the road commission was put on Outside Threat Mode because someone threatened to come shoot a couple employees over gravel on the road.
“None of us wants it to get to this point,” he said. “But the reality is – we’re here.”
The board ultimately decided to take only the interim step and moved unanimously accept the Security Committee’s recommendations and to implement them effective Nov. 1.