1. Archive

Security of County Courthouse assailed

Published Sep. 28, 2005

The clerk of the court says the county should beef up security at the courthouse in Clearwater before _ not after _ a tragic incident.

The County Courthouse in Clearwater is a "bomb waiting to explode," says Clerk of the Court Karleen De Blaker, who has written a memo to county commissioners outlining her security concerns at the six-story building.

Visitors to the fourth-floor courtrooms must pass through metal detectors, but visitors doing business on the other five floors of the building at 315 Court St. face no security checks.

De Blaker said she is most concerned about the safety of employees and customers in her records office on the first floor of the courthouse. There, clerks handle requests for domestic violence injunctions and other family court matters, "which are more volatile than most criminal cases," she wrote.

"These domestics, they're more of a danger than anything else. Sometimes the spouse, male or female, will follow the first one in to file an injunction of their own and get into a confrontation," De Blaker said Tuesday. "We've got so many nuts out in the world today, we don't know what they're going to do."

De Blaker pointed to a 1987 incident at the Pasco County Courthouse in Dade City, where a Zephyrhills man shot his estranged wife to death during a break in their divorce proceedings. Several years later, that courthouse beefed up its security.

Nothing that violent has happened at the Pinellas County Courthouse, although family members have squabbled in the clerk's office before, De Blaker said.

Pinellas County officials say safety concerns at the courthouse arise every few years, but no one has agreed on how to address them. The building has four ground-floor entrances and another one in the basement parking garage.

"What happens is you can start down the road toward securing the building, but unless you're willing to go in and out of one common entrance, it makes it real hard," said interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster. "Everybody has not been willing to completely lock down the building. It involves everybody, everybody being willing to give up convenience for the sake of security."

De Blaker said she first put her concerns in writing in May when commissioners were going over the proposed $1.5-billion budget. She said commissioners promised to come back to the discussion after the budget was settled, but they have not.

She re-sent her original memo to Commissioner Bob Stewart last week as a reminder.

Commissioners said they sensed no urgency when De Blaker brought it up in May.

Stewart said it might be more practical to hire security officers to monitor the courthouse rather than try to move all the visitors through one door.

"My concern is there are so many people who come in to use the courthouse for reasons not requiring special security that to require everybody to queue up to check a record or meet a county commissioner may be excessive. On the other hand, having somebody on call with authority may make some sense," Stewart said. "It hasn't been done because there hasn't been a demonstrated need. Karleen's position is we don't want to have waited until someday it's demonstrated that we needed something. It's a tough balancing act."

About a year ago, Tax Collector W. Fred Petty hired sheriff's deputies to work security at each of his five tag and title offices. Since then, the deputies have calmed down irate customers, Petty said. They also watch over employees, who sometimes must accompany customers into the parking lot to inspect their cars for vehicle identification numbers, he said.

Meanwhile, De Blaker said, her employees in the courthouse and at branch offices in St. Petersburg and Clearwater remain worried about security.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office recently purchased two metal detectors, one for the north county branch office at 29582 U.S. 19 N and one for the south county branch office at 1800 66th St. N. Both locations primarily handle traffic court cases, but are moving toward becoming full-service offices.

The north county device has been installed just outside the courtroom doors rather than at the main entrance.

"That solves nothing," De Blaker said. "What if somebody comes in with something, a knife or a gun, and shoots somebody, shoots a bailiff over by the (metal detector)?"

The county is considering moving that device to the main entrance. The situation at the south county building is a bit stickier since there is more than one main entrance. County facilities officials have not decided what to do there.

De Blaker said there is no security problem at the judicial building in downtown St. Petersburg or at the Criminal Justice Center on 49th Street.