PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) - A new $78 million dollar Portsmouth courthouse complex promises to be state-of-the-art, but there are concerns about just how safe it will be.
The Portsmouth Sheriff's Office, which will be in charge of security, is raising these concerns.
Back in 2008, Portsmouth Circuit Court judges filed a lawsuit forcing the city to repair or replace the current courthouse on Crawford Street. The judges had many concerns including security concerns in the current courthouse, like prisoners walking hallways shoulder-to-shoulder with the public.
Portsmouth Sheriff Bill Watson told WAVY.com he will need an additional 28 deputies to secure the new complex on Port Centre Parkway.
WAVY.com was the first news organization to tour the new Portsmouth courthouse. Court Security Commander Capt. Bryan Smith said he has no concern with the design of the courthouse; his biggest concern is the fundamental element of security.
"Those things that happened in Atlanta could happen here," said Smith. Fear of another Atlanta shakes Capt. Smith to his law enforcement core. "If we do not get the manpower we have requested then it is going to be a potential bomb," said Smith of Portsmouth's new 207,000 square foot Judicial Center. "It is very much an accident waiting to happen in terms of security. You will virtually have none," he added.
Smith vividly remembers the Atlanta courthouse shooting of March 11, 2005. Brian Nichols wrestled a gun away from a deputy then shot her in the face. He then shot and killed Judge Rowland Barnes and Court Reporter Julie Brandau and another deputy before slipping away. Nichols would also kill Federal Agent David Wilhelm.
Nichols took over a courthouse that allowed him to do this and that scares the heck out of Capt. Smith, who claims he does not have the staffing to provide proper courthouse security. "We will be in worse shape there than here if we open that court complex with our current manpower. I am concerned about it, yes sir....I stay up late worrying about it, yes sir, all the time," said Capt. Smith.
The new Judicial Center is about three times the size of the old courthouse. Architect Joe Miller of HBA Architecture Interior Design designed the mammoth structure. There are 11 courtrooms under one roof. It is a beautiful building, but challenging to secure.
There are five external doors including one that is away from the security check-in. We asked Miller what stops somebody from coming in the courthouse at the main check-in then coming down the long hall and opening the door to let someone in who doesn't go through security. "We have an alarm and the camera," Miller explained.
Miller said he is confident there won't be a way to skirt the security, but Capt. Smith is not confident at all. "Look you could come in, and we search you and you're clean, and then you walk up there and let in a gunman or whoever else in."
The Sheriff's Office is also concerned about transporting prisoners. Currently, prisoners travel underground to the courthouse next door. Once the new complex is complete, the prisoners must be transported a little less than a mile.
Capt. Smith laid out how it will work. "I have to take him from lock up of criminal court then lock him up in a sally port, then put him in a vehicle, and put him in another sally port of the court he has to go to, and then take him out and put him in a secure area." That takes manpower Capt. Smith says he does not have. It is undetermined if there will be video appearances before judges.
Another concern is the fact that the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office personnel will be accessed through doors on the side of the building, and not through the security check-in. In the back of the office is a door that if not properly monitored could allow unsecured access to the courthouse. "If that is not monitored, individuals could theoretically come in through the Commonwealth Attorney's Office, and if allowed, someone could exit out of the office and into the court building without going through a security check," Smith added. Card swipes and security codes could be part of the solution.
The new courthouse is so big, the current radio system is inadequate. Smith says there is so much steel and concrete you can't get radio signals in parts of the courthouse. There is a solution to this, but it too is costly. "There was nothing in the design of the new building that would allow for our current radio system to operate in this new court building," Smith said. When asked if this was an oversight, Smith responded, "Yes, sir."
Capt. Smith toured the new courthouse with Portsmouth City Councilman and Attorney Steve Heretick who is well aware of Smith's concerns about inadequate staffing. "Are they going to get 28 new deputies? I don't know if they are getting 28 new deputies. I don't know if it's going to be 28," Heretick answered.
The Sheriff's Office has requested City Council fund 28 new deputies, which would cost $1.2 million dollars. "That number (28 deputies) sounds
reasonable. It might be more. It might be less, but that sounds ball park. The city is going to make sure the Sheriff's Department has the resources to staff it when it opens," Heretick promised. Paul Lanteigne, the Consultant for the new courthouse, thinks it is too high a number, "I have given the City options where they use significantly less than 28 deputies."
WAVY.com has learned the issue of courthouse security will come up before Portsmouth City Council next week. Stay with WAVY News 10 on air and online for updates.
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