Commission hears concerns with courthouse security
A quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: “Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”
Since the inception of our nation, the balance between security and freedom has been hotly debated. Many believe that increased police powers are necessary to prevent crime and protect the public. Many believe the guarantee of liberty in the Constitution has become an illusory promise as the government gains more powers.
A debate on this fundamental issue occurred at the Pocahontas County Commission meeting on March 4, when the commission considered upgraded security at the Courthouse, including armed guards, controlled access, surveillance cameras, metal detectors and x-ray machines. The commission is considering applying for a $159,000 grant from the West Virginia Division of Justice and Community Services, which would pay for equipment, but not personnel. The commission would be responsible for hiring at least two guards and paying for equipment maintenance – at a cost to the county of roughly $100,000 per year.
During previous meetings, all three commissioners signaled their willingness to implement the security measures. Commissioner David Fleming has been a strong proponent of the upgraded security system, along with Sheriff David Jonese, who said Pocahontas County is one of just two courthouses in the state without the enhanced security measures.
“The last five years or so, there’s been a few instances where courthouse personnel and elected officials have felt threatened by certain unfortunate circumstances,” said Fleming.
Commissioners Jamie Walker and William Beard have stated qualified support for additional security, but also raised concerns about the costs.
“I guess if we could have a couple days with a budget session and see, as far as finances, I think that will probably lead us to the right direction,” said Beard.
“I, personally, feel we need to see where the money’s at before we make a definite decision,” said Walker.
Marlinton farmer and mechanic John Leyorek told the commission the issue is broader than the financial questions. Leyzorek said he had participated in functions at the courthouse for many years as a member of the public and an appointed board member.
“I am grateful and proud and honored to have been a part of my local government, in that sense, and to participate in this fantastic system that we have here, where the government apparatus belongs to the people, and where the justification for its existence and its prime function is to protect the rights of the people,” he said.
“I think you’re gravely mistaken feeling safer with a metal detector and a guard at the authorized entrances to the Courthouse,” Leyzorek added. “If somebody really wanted to do harm in the courthouse, all they would have to do is send an unarmed buddy in through the front door, open the exit door in the back for that guy to come in.”
Leyzorek said armed, law-abiding citizens would be able to help repel an attack on their courthouse, but not if they had been disarmed coming into the building.
“We are creating a circumstance in which predators have free reign, because they know that everybody is going to be disarmed,” he said.
Beaver Creek resident Norman Alderman argued that surveillance cameras had already created legal problems for the county.
“I’m opposed to any more electronic contraptions in this county courthouse,” he said. “We had a problem with the camera system up at Durbin. We had to call the FCC to get rid of it. It caused a lot of internal conflict between the magistrates over that. It was a serious breach of the law.”
Alderman recounted an incident during the 2012 elections, when surveillance video, apparently shot by a security camera from inside the Sheriff’s Office, was posted to a Jonese re-election campaign website. The footage appeared to show then prosecuting attorney Donna Price make a rude gesture with her hand. In December 2012, the County Commission filed an inquiry with the West Virginia Ethics Commission, regarding the use of the security footage.
“Our election was drastically affected by the improper use, by Mr. Jonese, of the cameras in his office,” Alderman said.
Alderman asked the commission about the status of the inquiry.
“The Ethics Commission has told us that it’s still pending, and they can’t speculate on when that case will be resolved,” Fleming responded.
Fleming said security cameras would not record audio and would be installed with privacy concerns taken into consideration. According to Fleming, the cameras would be monitored in the 911 Center and the Sheriff’s Office.
Circuit Clerk Connie Carr challenged Alderman’s assertion that security cameras would do more harm than good.
“Courthouses across the state are doing this and you think it’s a bad idea?” Carr asked.
“I do,” replied Alderman. “Why are we trying to turn this county into an armed camp?”
The Center for Judicial and Executive Security reported that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses increased from 24 between 1970 and 1979 to 78 between 2000 and 2009.
Two violent incidents occurred outside West Virginia courthouses last year. In October, a retired police officer fired shots at a federal courthouse in Wheeling. Three security guards were injured by flying debris. Police responding to the scene shot and killed the shooter. In April 2013, Sheriff Eugene Crum was shot and killed while sitting in his car outside of the Mingo County Courthouse.
The commission is expected to act on the grant request and a commitment to hire guards during its meeting on March 18.