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Pinellas County talking about tightening security at courthouse

Not long after she began working as the Pinellas County property appraiser, Pam Dubov was visited by an angry man carrying a large briefcase.

He sat in her office, on the second floor of the county's Clearwater courthouse, ranting and repeatedly dipping his hand into the case to fish around for papers and nobody knew what else. Dubov and two staff members in the room held their breath.

"All three of us were ready to come out of our chairs if we had to," she said.

She had no way of knowing if the man was armed. That may change in the future, now that the County Commission has reopened a years-long debate over whether to boost safety measures.

"We're talking about security," said County Administrator Bob LaSala, and that is all he would say about his closed-door meeting with county commissioners several weeks ago. Citing a state law that protects safety-planning discussions, county officials refused to say what proposals are on the table or what they might cost.

But it is no secret that metal detectors, which have been talked about for years, are in the discussion.

The high price of buying the equipment and staffing it has prevented the idea from becoming reality, as well as concern that it would lead to long lines and inconvenience for visitors, said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

The building at 315 Court St. in Clearwater has a metal detector on the fourth floor leading into the courtrooms, but there is no security barrier on the building's ground floor or at the entrance to the County Commission meeting room.

"We've had many discussions and every time there's a big incident we do this," Latvala said.

Two events in particular have made an impression: a 2008 shooting in the county courthouse in downtown St. Petersburg that injured one bailiff and left the shooter dead. And a similar incident in 2010, when a gunman — an ex-convict angered by his wife's firing — entered a School Board meeting in Panama City and shot at board members before fatally shooting himself.

More recently, some commission members have been spooked by what they perceive is an uptick in antigovernment sentiment. An armed sheriff's deputy is always in the room, but that's cold comfort when you are within spitting distance of an irate citizen.

Latvala said she and other commissioners recently received sympathy cards from a man who accused them of ignoring a 1996 term-limits vote that is the subject of a lawsuit. He called the commissioners worthless and demanded they resign, she said.

None of the commissioners or constitutional officers interviewed for this article said they are afraid to come to work. Clerk of Court Ken Burke said he has never felt threatened and that on a practical level, the building has so many entrances it would be next to impossible to secure.

"I've had agitated citizens and different things, but gosh, most people are reasonable," he said.

In Hillsborough County, visitors to a County Commission meeting must pass through a metal detector, and have their bags and purses screened. On July 24, this system caught a man carrying an unloaded handgun in his bag. He claimed to have forgotten about the weapon. Because he didn't have a concealed-weapons permit, he was arrested.

There was "no indication that he had any evil intentions," said Maj. Jim Livingston, who oversees the county's court complex for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "But, nonetheless, he shouldn't have been carrying it around anyway."

Like Pinellas, Pasco County has deputies watch over County Commission meetings, but doesn't use metal detectors, said Kevin Doll, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.

Dubov said in the past 10 years she has worked in the appraiser's office, there have been about half a dozen times when she felt threatened by a menacing phone call or an intoxicated citizen staggering into her office.

Oddly, some people become explosive only after talking at length about their property values, hurling insults at appraiser staff who know their names and where they live.

"It's not exactly the wisest thing," Dubov said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County talking about tightening security at courthouse 08/19/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 19, 2012 11:26pm]
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