Budget cuts aimed at security officers in the state’s district courts misfired in Carter County.

 


Budget cuts aimed at security officers in the state’s district courts misfired in Carter County.

 

Oklahoma Supreme Court judges recently announced funding for security officers serving the district courts had been axed from the district court system’s budget.

 

District Judge Tom Walker said when he learned of the action he became deeply concerned because he believed the absence of a security officer could result in serious safety issues not only for the Carter County District Court but the entire courthouse, courthouse staff and citizens using the courthouse.

 

Walker said he immediately contacted Carter County Sheriff Ken Grace to discuss the budget cut, which would mean the loss of courthouse security Officer John Ryan.

 

Grace said he too was concerned about the cut eliminating the full-time officer assigned to the courthouse.

 

“We (Carter County Sheriff’s Department) provide a transport officer to escort inmates from the Carter County Detention Center to the courthouse for appearances and return escort back to the jail. In high-profile cases, field deputies are also assigned to assist in providing additional courthouse security. However, if I had to pull deputies off their normal duties on a daily basis to be at the courthouse, it would hinder the investigative work we do in the field — that’s a huge issue. But an equally massive issue is safety at the courthouse,” Grace said.

 

Grace said during his conference with Walker, the judge asked him to examine possible ways to retain the full-time courthouse security officer. The sheriff discussed the issue with members of his staff and found a possible way to solve the problem.

 

“Under state law, a $10 fee is charged everyone who is convicted of a felony. That fee is called the Sheriff’s Service Fee and is earmarked for a Courthouse Security Fund. Monies from that fund are to be used for upgrades in security.”

 

While Grace said he knew the fund could be used for security cameras and high-tech electronics, like metal detectors, it was not clear if the money could be used to pay a salary.

 

“I discussed it with Judge Walker and we then sent the question to the state auditor and to the district attorney. Both offices researched it and determined the fund could be used to pay the salary of a courthouse security officer,” Grace said, adding once he received official clarification on how the money could be used he told Walker he would agree to use the fund to pay the salary.

 

“I am very pleased that the sheriff and I were able to work together to preserve courthouse security,” Walker said. “John Ryan (a former Ardmore Police Department captain who now serves as the courthouse security officer) and his predecessor, Ed Burton, (who retired from the job in 2009 after four decades in law enforcement) have been excellent in defusing and preventing potential explosive situations before they became truly dangerous.

 

Both officers are good at recognizing potential situations and taking immediately action — proving, beyond a doubt,  an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

 

Carter County District Court is the largest district court in the 20th Judicial District and carries a far greater number of cases than the other district courts in Johnston, Love, Marshall and Murray counties. District Judge John Scaggs, who presides over the smaller courts in the district, said the Supreme Court judges’ decision to cut courthouse security officers’ salaries from the budget does not affect the courts in the surrounding counties.

 

“We’ve never had a deputy present on a regular basis. If I, or any of the other judges, anticipated there might be a problem at a trial, we have asked the sheriff in that county to provide a deputy in plain clothes in the courtroom. In cases where we suspect the defendant might be a flight risk, we have asked for uniformed deputies to be present. In situations where deputies were not available, we have called upon police departments,” he said.

 

But Scaggs said the smaller courts in the district “have taken precautions,” (such as the use of cameras in the Murray County Courthouse). And while security issues haven’t been a problem in the smaller courts in the area — it is only a matter time before a violent incident explodes in a courtroom somewhere in the state.

 

“I think we will have to have a tragedy before it will be addressed by the state,” he said.

 

Marsha Miller 221-6529