Changes in courthouse access go into effect Feb. 1

Published 8:01 pm Friday, January 15, 2016

Big changes are coming to the Beaufort County Courthouse. They won’t all happen at once, but as of Feb. 1, access to the courthouse will look quite a bit different.

County Manager Brian Alligood announced this week that the county will limit public access to the building by closing down all entrances except those on the West Second Street, funneling the public through the front door and the handicapped-accessible entrance at the Magistrates’ Office on the basement level. Those two entrances will also have security screening checkpoints — the same security process previously located inside the building, at the entrances to the courtrooms.

Alligood said the changes won’t happen overnight — there will be a transition period — but the increased security is necessary.

“Be patient with us. It’s going to be process. It’s going to take some time. I think what folks need to understand is that we are working hard — the Board (of Commissioners) has said they believe there needs to be increased security for these areas, for the public and the employees there,” Alligood said.

The building’s security has long been a concern for those working in the courthouse. Beaufort County’s courthouse is one of very few in the state that does not have a single public access entrance with a security checkpoint. The change comes at the recommendation of a courthouse security committee that includes county commissioners and staff, as well as judges and other court officers. Last year, county commissioners added $200,000 to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office budget to hire four additional deputies specifically to provide courthouse security, in addition to the bailiffs that secure the courtrooms. However, when tallying training, equipment, vehicles and more — the costs associated with four additional deputies outside of salary — county officials came to the realization that it would cost the county less money to hire an outside firm to provide increased security.

The county has entered into a one-year, $168,000 contract with Universal Protection Service, a security firm based in Greenville. The contract call for five security personnel working during courthouse hours: two officers manning security checkpoints at the front entrance; two officers at the lower-level entrance, clearing courthouse visitors with handheld metal-detecting wands; and a fifth, roving, employee, Alligood said.

Sheriff’s Office bailiffs will continue providing security for the courtrooms, while Universal Protection Service will handle the ins and outs, Alligood said.

“This is just supplementing (the bailiffs), it’s not replacing it,” Alligood said. “They will continue to do exactly what they’re already doing.”

In addition to the extra security staff, the county will be spending another $125,000 for additional surveillance equipment, including cameras set up at strategic points in the courthouse.

Alligood said there’s been mixed feedback to the coming changes, but the majority recognize additional security measures must be taken. Last summer, an alert bailiff detained a man, who had been acting erratically, at the courthouse. The man was carrying a BB gun indistinguishable from a revolver. He was taken into custody and admitted to the psychiatric ward at Vidant Beaufort Hospital, but the incident amplified concerns about security.

“(People) understand it and supportive of it. I think there are groups of folks that there are different ways to do it, but they understand that this is one way to do it — it may be a little inconvenient, but people will get used to it,” Alligood said.

While the public will be required to go through security at the front entrance, attorneys and other officers of the court who have regular business in the building will be able to apply for an ID that gives them priority clearance at the checkpoints, according to Alligood. All those who work in the building will be allowed access by a swipe of personally issued cards at keyless entries.

Alligood said that visitors to the courthouse should be prepared to think about timing their visits accordingly.

“If court starts at 9 a.m., don’t expect that you can show up at five minutes to nine and just breeze through the door,” Alligood said. “I guess the biggest piece of this is people are going to have to be patient with us. Nobody likes changes. … There is some inconvenience that comes with it, but that’s what it takes nowadays.”