Courthouse Security

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sheriff: we will improve security at courthouses

By Billy Davis

Panola County sheriff’s deputies could oversee beefed-up security at the county’s two courthouses as early as February.

Panola Sheriff Otis Griffin said Monday he had met January 13 with leadership at the sheriff’s department to plan security in Batesville and Sardis.

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Griffin announced plans for added security at the January 10 meeting of the Panola County Board of Supervisors.

The beefed-up security would include a deputy assigned to each courthouse and restricting public access to the front entrance.

The sheriff is also recommending using metal detectors to monitor the public when court is in session. Metal detectors are already stationed at each courthouse but are seldom used.

“Right now a man can walk right off the street and into the courtroom, without being searched, for his sentencing,” Griffin told supervisors at their Second District meeting in Batesville.

The courtrooms have been the scene of disorder in the past. A defendant who confronted now-retired Judge Andrew C. Baker was sprayed with pepper spray in 2008 in Sardis and subdued by deputies.

“All of a sudden he wanted to fight,” said Griffin, who was present during the incident.   

Griffin recalled that a second defendant, Larry Lewis, was tackled when he broke and ran in a 2003 incident.

Both defendants were reacting after a judge handed down their sentence, according to the sheriff.

Elsewhere in the courthouse, deputy clerks have hit panic buttons when an irate member of the public causes a disturbance. Last year, deputies and Batesville police escorted a man, angry about his garbage bill, from the county administrator’s office.

Two bailiffs are assigned to courtroom duty in Sardis and Batesville, and other law enforcement officials, including investigators and the sheriff, are often present during criminal proceedings.

But the bailiffs serve part-time, only when court is in session, leaving the courthouse itself unprotected.

“I agree. We need to assign a deputy to the courthouse,” Supervisor Bubba Waldrup told his colleagues last week.

The sheriff and supervisors also discussed using electronic key pads to allow courthouse employees entry into the north and west entrances at the Batesville courthouse.

A similar security system could be used in Sardis, Griffin said later.

At the supervisors’ meeting, Griffin coupled concerns for security with a complaint that county offices at the Sardis courthouse lock their doors at noon.

“Citizens north of the river are just as important as citizens south of the river,” Griffin told the county board.

Further discussion revealed that one person works in the chancery clerk and circuit clerk offices in Sardis, which forces them to close the office during the lunch hour.

Three people work in the tax collector’s office so that office, too, closes for lunch rather than leave two employees alone.

“Are the security and the closings two separate issues?” Board president Gary Thompson asked Griffin.

“They’re closing because of security,” Supervisor James Birge replied.

Griffin went on to explain that the presence of a deputy in Sardis would help protect the lightly manned county offices.