Tenn. state grants awarded for courthouse security

State funding bolsters security at region courthouses
By Ben Benton
Chattanooga Times Free Press 
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.  — Visitors to Southeast Tennessee courthouses should see more security features after $160,000 in state grants was awarded for upgrades in eight of 10 counties, officials said.

Stephanie Radzyminski is a deputy sessions court clerk who works the front window beside the Bradley County Judicial Complex's security station.

"I'm very happy with the security we have here now," Ms. Radzyminski said. "But sitting right here up front, I always worry just because of the nature of what I do."

The deputy clerk takes court payments and sometimes must deliver bad news to people, who she said can become very upset.

"It's nice to know we've got that little bit extra to protect not only me, but all the clerks back here," she said.

Eighty-three of Tennessee's 95 counties received a share of a $2 million appropriation for panic buttons, handheld metal detectors, bulletproof benches, walk-through magnetometers, X-ray machines, camera and surveillance systems, stun guns and bulletproof vests, according to Sue Allison, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Counties must put up matching money of just more than 11 percent, she said.

Rhea County didn't apply for the grant, and equipment requested by Grundy County was not on the list of eligible items, officials said.

Courthouse employees worry about increasing threats of violence toward judges, lawyers and their clients, said Eric Watson, a Bradley County Sheriff's Department lieutenant and state representative for Bradley, Polk and Meigs counties.

"The last year has been the worst in my law enforcement career for judicial threats," he said. "We've had to look into probably four matters in the last five months here in Bradley County on people making some type of threat."

Bradley's $42,800 award -- the largest grant in Southeast Tennessee -- will buy an X-ray machine along with surveillance and communications equipment, Lt. Watson said.

Rural Bledsoe County got the third-highest award at $30,600, records show.

County Mayor Gregg Ridley said the money will buy handheld metal detectors, walk-through magnetometers and an X-ray machine.

"There probably hasn't been an event that would have been that serious or threatening to the judges or the local officials that are located here in the courthouse or even the public that was here doing business transactions," Mr. Ridley said. "But we have had episodes where people leave the courtroom very upset."

A secure entrance to the building would help stop weapons from getting inside, he said.

Meigs County Mayor Ken Jones, a retired Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper, said most of the state's smaller counties are behind in security upgrades.

"In Meigs County, we are looking at the overall picture in terms of courthouse security," Mr. Jones said. "I believe if you've got the courthouse itself secure, you're going to have the courtroom secure."

According to officials in the rest of the region, Marion will get walk-through and handheld magnetometers and a panic button system; McMinn will buy a walk-through magnetometer, bulletproof vests and a notification system; Polk will purchase handheld and walk-through magnetometers for its new justice center and Sequatchie will get walk-through magnetometers for its justice center and the old courthouse downtown.

Bradley's Lt. Watson, who as the District 22 state representative is on the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers and state court officials aimed to fund the kind of equipment counties need most.

"I pushed for these local enhancements, especially for my district, because I knew the needs personally because I'm in law enforcement," Lt. Watson said.

"Courthouse security is something to address across the state of Tennessee," he said.

Copyright 2007 Chattanooga Times Free Press

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