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Distractions and delays cited in Tampa courthouse security breach

TAMPA — Both the agencies involved agree something went wrong Wednesday with the gun scare at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse.

The phantom gun turned out to be a cigarette lighter, but no one knew that then.

Thursday the Sheriff's Office and courthouse security personnel were at odds over what happened. A sheriff's colonel said the county security chief was trying "to do damage control" at the expense of his deputies.

So, how did someone pass undetected by a guard and an X-ray machine with what looked like an automatic pistol?

And why, with someone supposedly on the loose inside with a pistol, did more than three hours pass before authorities evacuated the building?

At a news conference, county security chief Scott Dunlap gave the following account:

8:45 a.m.: A woman goes through courthouse security with a bag containing what appeared to be a pistol. Security tapes reviewed later show the X-ray machine operator looking down at a notebook and writing down a phone number of an auto parts store that another officer had given him. When he looks back up, the bag is gone, and its image is moving off the screen.

8:50 a.m.: He notifies his supervisor.

8:55 a.m.: Security Sgt. Bryan LeBue comes to review the images in the machine's memory. People keep entering the building, unaware of potential danger.

9:45 a.m.: After "technical problems with the password" are resolved, the image of the person with the bag is retrieved.

10:10 a.m.: Another supervisor, Sgt. Sal Vlacancich, searches the courtroom area where officers think the woman with the bag went. He can't find anyone, and goes to the office to tell his supervisor, Lt. Dennis Meyer, what is happening.

10:40 a.m.: Meyer rechecks the tapes for the person's image.

10:45 a.m.: Dunlap is paged.

10:58: Dunlap calls back, and tells his staff to alert the Sheriff's Office, court administration and bailiffs.

Noon: The Sheriff's Office, which has the sole authority to evacuate the courthouse, does so, more than three hours after the gun image appeared on the X-ray screen. There are about 3,200 people inside.

"I'm telling you flat-out that time line is wrong,'' said sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera.

He said the security staff called a sheriff's lieutenant over to a reviewing room in the main courthouse from another building and gave him conflicting versions of events, once even saying, wrongly, that the person with the gun had been found.

"When they locked in on an account, he called me," Previtera said. That was around 11:44 a.m. and he immediately left the sheriff's headquarters in Ybor City, driving to the Edgecomb Courthouse downtown.

"I started making calls (about the evacuation) in the car," he added. "As irate as I was yesterday, I'm even more irate today."

"We reacted immediately," Previtera said of the sheriff's office. "We did everything we were supposed to do."

Dunlap said he stands behind his time line, although he concedes his staff made significant errors. Security officers can't evacuate the building, but they could have stopped more people from coming inside, and they should have, he said.

They also should have notified him and the Sheriff's Office immediately, he said.

"Everything is a learning experience," Dunlap said.

Dunlap would not release the name of the officer who let the bag through, citing an ongoing investigation. He said the guard has worked there for seven years and is "very remorseful."

The guards are county employees, but not law enforcement, and not unionized.

The sheriff submitted a study to the county administrator last week about possible consolidation, with his office taking over the security service, the emergency dispatch center, emergency management, consumer protection and the 911 agency, said Larry McKinnon, a sheriff's spokesman. This was prompted by a request from several judges for all court security to be the purview of the sheriff, he said.

Both Dunlap's office and the Sheriff's Office will investigate Wednesday's incident.

Dunlap said there would be appropriate disciplinary action. He would not elaborate.

Dunlap said he thinks his office can handle the job, but said "I'm sure they (the Sheriff's Office) could do the job just as well, or better, than I could. I don't know."

In the 11 years Dunlap has worked for county security, this was the first time an object that looked so strikingly similar to a gun made it inside a county facility, he said. Last year four guns were intercepted, and two have been stopped this year so far.

"People make mistakes," Dunlap said of Wednesday's missteps. "My officers are better than this."

Distractions and delays cited in Tampa courthouse security breach 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 11:13pm]
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