Beginning July 1, the second floor of the Eau Claire County Courthouse is going to feel a bit like an airport or sporting event.
People using the elevators or stairs to access the floor — the county’s courts floor — will be funneled through a single entrance with mechanisms to screen those passing through, along with carry-in items and packages.
“It’s a great idea to have added security,” said Capt. Joel Brettingen of the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office. “We all know there can be issues in courthouses. We’ve seen it across the country.”
Here are just a couple of examples, according to the National Center for State Courts:
• On Dec. 15, 2011, inside a courthouse in Grand Marais County, Minn., a man convicted of sexual assault shot and wounded the county attorney and the father of one of the main victims.
• A man stabbed and wounded a judge and deputy inside a courthouse on March 9, 2012, in Grays Harbor County, Wash., where he planned to steal a file containing his conviction for domestic violence.
In Eau Claire County, Brettingen recalled an incident where someone fired a starter pistol in a stairwell.
In addition, bailiffs see a lot of people carrying knives. “Most people forget they have them,” he said.
Even though there have been no major incidents, “we’re at a point where we need to do something,” said Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Sue Miller, chairwoman of the board’s Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee.
Eau Claire County Judge John Manydeeds agrees.
“You’d hate to have something happen,” said Manydeeds, a former attorney in the state public defender’s office for more than 30 years and a former county supervisor. “But everyone says it’s a matter of time.”
Almost “any kind of case you have at the courthouse, there is a lot of emotion whether it’s a criminal case, a child support case, a divorce,” said Manydeeds, and sometimes people act on that emotion.
“The goal (of the screening equipment) is to provide a safer environment for people on the second floor,” a floor that can only be accessed by the public via elevators and one main stairwell, sheriff’s Lt. Dave Riewestahl said.
The screening equipment is expected to arrive on schedule and be in place July 1, he said. The county has contracted with Per Mar Security Services to operate the station.
“This isn’t a unique thing,” Riewestahl added. Airports and some courthouses and sporting events use similar equipment.
When the screening station is being operated, all non-county personnel will be screened, he said. Anyone who leaves the secure area of the second floor must be rescreened upon re-entry.
Unauthorized items will include ammunition, axes or hatchets, batons, bows, brass knuckles, electric weapons, explosives, guns of any kind — including BB, pellet and toy, hammers, knives, mace, martial arts weapons, pepper spray or sharp objects.
Any object considered to be illegal will be confiscated, and the person possessing the item will be denied access to the second floor unless cleared by law enforcement, according to a sheriff’s office manual.
People attempting to enter the building with unauthorized items that are not considered illegal will have the option to return items to their personal vehicle or elsewhere outside the courthouse or dispose of the item in a receptacle at the screening station; items won’t be returned.
All authorized county personnel will be allowed to enter and exit the second floor without being screened, but they must follow all weapons restrictions required of the general public, according to a sheriff’s office policy manual.
On-duty law enforcement officers will be allowed to bypass the security screening. Off-duty law enforcement personnel and qualified retired law enforcement officers can bypass the screening with proper identification.
Employees of the state public defender’s office will be issued an access badge that allows them to be moved to the front of the screening line when applicable.
The county will kind of ease into the new equipment, and if adjustments need to be made, they will be, Brettingen said.