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Courthouse Security May Be Loosened Commissioners Consider Scaling Back System Costing $280,000 Per Year

Security may be loosened at the Spokane County Courthouse as a money-saving measure.

In a discussion Tuesday about the 1997 budget, county Commissioner Steve Hasson suggested eliminating first-floor metal detectors and security guards who have greeted courthouse visitors since July 1995.

The security system, which costs about $280,000 a year, “just isn’t working,” said Hasson.

“It’s not an issue of just out-and-out doing away with the whole system, but can we take components out and put them on the third floor” where there are courtrooms?

Visitors who have business on the first and second floors would be able to come and go without security checks.

Officials for the company that runs the system say they regularly stop people carrying guns, knives, Mace and other weapons. In 1992, the U.S. Marshal’s Service called the courthouse “one of the least secure facilities … ever reviewed.”

In the last four months, guards have seized about 100 guns from visitors to the courthouse, Public Safety Building and Juvenile Court.

But Commissioner Phil Harris, who supported installing the security system last year, said it has lost its effectiveness because courthouse workers don’t have to go through the metal detectors and some visitors find ways to avoid the inconvenience.

“Somebody told me the attorneys have a way of getting into the building without going through security,” said Harris, adding he also has heard about public defenders who leave a door to the outside propped open.

“That is categorically false,” said public defender Don Westerman. “If they did (prop open a door) and I were to find out about it, whoever did it would no longer work here.”

Westerman, a member of the courthouse security committee, said the Spokane County Bar Association repeatedly has filed requests for badges to allow attorneys to bypass the metal detectors.

The security committee “has just flat refused” those requests, Westerman said. “I don’t know of any private attorney who has been able to get into the building without going through the (metal detectors),” he said.

Security stations were added in response to 1995 shootings in the King County Courthouse in Seattle and to comply with a state law that bans firearms from courtrooms.

Previously, a metal detector was used twice a week, on days when domestic violence and child dispute cases were heard. Additional security was added for hearings that were considered high-risk.

Spokane County judges called that security “pathetic.”

Superior Court Judge Robert Austin said the security guards, who work for a private contractor, Olympic Security Services, Inc., have confiscated “numerous, numerous, numerous weapons.”

Officials at Spokane City Hall have added security guards and taken other precautions since April 29, when someone detonated a pipe bomb outside the building. It was the third bomb detonated in the Spokane that month, and another exploded in a Planned Parenthood office in the Valley in July.

Some visitors consider the county’s security system an annoyance because all but two entrances to the courthouse are closed and lines sometimes form behind the metal detectors.

The metal detectors “beep” if a visitor is wearing steel-toed shoes, suspenders, a large belt buckle, or carrying too many coins.

One recent visitor who activated the system was U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, who visited the courthouse last Thursday. Guards waved a hand-held metal detector up and down Nethercutt’s dark suit before letting him pass.

“It’s an irony that they search our congressman, which they should, but they don’t search our employees,” said Hasson.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo