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Incidents put new focus on security in Hall courtrooms
Deputy Robert Bridgette inspects objects that pass through a security scanner Friday morning. Visitors to the courthouse must empty their pockets and remove any metal objects such as belt buckles before passing through security.

Like their adult counterparts, juvenile offenders can pose potential threats for deputies working to secure the Hall County Courthouse.

“We had an officer not too long ago that actually had his nose broken by a juvenile,” said Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch. “You have to be very mindful of that and make sure you have adequate security measures in place.”

The measures are of great importance as the plans continue to form regarding a move to the courthouse annex. Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said the plan is to move Juvenile Court and Probate Court to the annex.

Forrester said the court administration, the sheriff’s office and county commission are working together and are “trying to produce the best we know how with what’s over there,” when repurposing the annex.

The sheriff’s office and its courthouse security play a vital role for Juvenile Court’s Chief Probation Officer Rodney Osborne and the probation office’s nine-member staff.

“Due to the fact that they’re not certified and they don’t have arrest powers as far as juvenile intake officers, anytime we’re needing kids transported or anytime we have any type of problems in our office, then courthouse security is here to help us out,” Osborne said.

In terms of security measures for the annex, the needed materials include a metal detector, an X-ray machine, security cameras, a control room and eight deputies. The annex would have all of the same security equipment on a smaller scale than the five-floor Hall County Courthouse.

“The distance and separation from the two
buildings causes some possible security issues if you try to monitor one building from another building,” Couch said.

Couch said he and his staff are confident in the changes made for security following the escape of James Edward Cantrell in July 2013.

Deputies Jack Dodd and Larry Henslee were fired following the escape, but the pair’s terminations were overturned by the Hall County Civil Service Board.

After Couch appealed the decisions, Senior Superior Court Judge Robert Adamson ruled that the Civil Service Board’s opinion was supported by “any evidence,” a review standard for a civil appeal. Essentially, because there were some defects in the security plan, that was reason enough to overturn the terminations. Adamson also acknowledged that the action taken by Dodd and Henslee partially contributed to the escape.

“After the incident we implemented security upgrades which enhanced the overall safety of the Courthouse and continue to make additional improvements as funding allows,” Couch said in a statement after the ruling.

“With that being said, any security measures that you put in place are dependant upon the personnel that you put in those positions,” Couch said Thursday. “If they’re negligent or if they have a lack of attention, anything of that nature, you’ll have some issues. No matter what security measures you put in place, there’s always a human element involved in it.”

Couch said the decision entitled Dodd and Henslee to back pay and Hall County government jobs. Dodd, who represented himself and Henslee during the court proceedings, declined to comment this week.

For juvenile offenders, the annex plan involves ways to safely move offenders and the court’s staff in and out of the building.

“We’re trying to look at a private entrance for the judges to get into the courthouse, so they don’t have to intermingle with folks who may be on trial or may be incarcerated,” Forrester said.

Osborne said the move is needed not only for the staff but for the juvenile offenders who need not be “paraded around in front of the general public.”

“Kids are very, very impulsive. Usually, they act first and then they think about what their actions were later,” Osborne said. “So sometimes, not very often, but at times things happen here within the probation office where kids or the parents may not totally agree with. Our courthouse security … do an excellent job as far as making sure that the probation officers within this office are working in a safe environment.”