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New security measures at Hillsborough courthouse take regulars by surprise

Lines form in front of the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa as visitors work their way through security checkpoints to get inside the building.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Lines form in front of the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa as visitors work their way through security checkpoints to get inside the building.

TAMPA — There's a new boss at the courthouse, and he isn't keen on silverware.

This week marked the Hillsborough sheriff's takeover of security operations at the downtown courthouse and other county buildings, an effort by the county to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

The law enforcement agency wasted no time enforcing existing safety procedures that hadn't always been followed by the county's guards. Some courthouse employees grumbled that they weren't forewarned about the crackdown.

By Thursday, court and clerk administrators had sent out e-mails explaining the new way of life.

That was too late for at least one clerk of court worker, who earlier in the week watched a security guard throw away the metal knife and fork she packed in her lunch. Metal kitchen utensils are no longer allowed.

Such measures might seem like overkill, but sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera doesn't think so.

"This is all about enhancing security there," he said. "We're doing this for their safety."

Court officials agreed.

"Yes, it's going to be a lot tighter," court administrator Mike Bridenback said. "We'd rather err on the side of surprising someone than continuing to be lax."

Commissioners voted last month to give the Sheriff's Office control of security at county buildings after learning the move would save more than $300,000 and avoid proposed cuts to patrol hours.

The agreement includes the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse, courthouse annex, County Center and the Plant City courthouse, which were previously secured by unsworn officers who worked for the county.

In August, one of those workers realized too late that he let what appeared to be a pistol slip into the Edgecomb courthouse. It turned out to be a gun-shaped cigarette lighter. But sheriff's officials were openly upset that it took security more than two hours to alert them of the lapse.

Carl Harness, the county's public safety administrator, said that incident had nothing to do with handing the reigns over to the Sheriff's Office on Oct. 1.

"This was in discussion long before then," he said.

The Sheriff's Office expects the transition to take 120 days. Savings will come from privatizing screening services through a contract with Wackenhut Corp., Previtera said. Hernando County signed a contract with the same company in August.

He said more screeners will be added, bringing the total at each checkpoint to three. County security officers will be given the chance to apply for those jobs.

The Sheriff's Office also will assign 12 law enforcement deputies and 10 community service officers to the courthouse, in addition to the bailiffs who are already there.

Other changes are apparent.

Thursday morning, the Edgecomb courthouse lobby resembled an airport terminal. Visitors waited in newly constructed serpentine lines. They dumped their pockets into plastic tubs that glided through X-ray conveyor belts. Belts came off.

A guard confiscated a steak knife from one woman's purse. She said it belonged to her daughter.

"I forgot I had it," shrugged 69-year-old Elizabeth Welch.

By 8:25 a.m., the line for members of the public was 50 or 60 people deep. For the most part, things moved smoothly. It took five to 10 minutes to get through the security screening — a sharp difference from Monday, when some 3,400 people squeezed through the front doors in just 2 1/2 hours.

Lawyers juggled their case files and belts.

"I don't know why we're taking belts off," said attorney Antonio Arnao, pausing to rethread his. "They have metal detectors."

Later, Previtera had a ready answer for a reporter.

"All kinds of weapons can be hidden in belts," he said, suggesting a trip to a local flea market for proof.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

New security measures at Hillsborough courthouse take regulars by surprise 10/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 8, 2009 10:57pm]
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