SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County is poised to save tens of thousands of dollars each year by outsourcing its courthouse security detail, but critics say the unusual plan carries risks.
Instead of having the county Sheriff's Office in charge of courthouse security, the Human Resources Department is hiring three retired law enforcement officers to staff a metal detector at the building's entrance.
Those security workers will be able to have firearms and detain anyone caught bringing weapons into the courthouse, but they won't have full arrest powers. That means they'll have to call and wait for a deputy if a serious incident occurs.
"With security guards, they have to repeat everything to a deputy or investigator in order to make the decision to act or arrest," said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek.
The issue of courthouse safety has been controversial in Woodbury County for months, as elected officials work through adopting a security plan for the building, which houses courtrooms and county offices. Most contentious has been the move to have non-county sheriff's deputies handle security.
According to a review by the Journal of the five Iowa counties most similar in population to Woodbury, four -- including Johnson -- have sheriff's deputies supervising their courthouse security programs.
The exception is Black Hawk County, which hired a private security firm when it implemented its security plan. Maintenance Specialist Rory Geving, who heads the courthouse security program, said the county's four-year-old arrangement with Securitas USA has worked well.
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson acknowledged outside firms can do the work at lower cost, which appeals to county officials struggling with tight budgets.
"The rub will come when and if something serious occurs and my officers are minutes away," he said. "The weighing of what works 90 percent of the time against its flaws for that 10 percent figure is a decision that rests squarely in the Board of Supervisors' hands, as is the results of such decisions."
Woodbury County Board member Jackie Smith, who introduced the outsourcing plan, acknowledged some don't like it, but she said it should work.
"The public is not going to see any difference if the sheriff ran it or we did," she said.
OUTSOURCING WILL SAVE $70,000
Woodbury County will spend $250,000 to launch its courthouse security plan as soon as Aug. 1. It includes installing cameras and limiting access to one entrance that will have a metal detector.
The 1918 building, at 620 Douglas St., has never had a comprehensive security system.
Sheriff Dave Drew's office expected to provide staffing after the County Board approved the new security plan in January at the request of County Attorney P.J. Jennings and other courthouse officials. But the board decided in May to have Human Resources hire from outside the Sheriff's Office.
The outsourcing plan will save about $70,000 annually in personnel costs. County Board member Larry Clausen doesn't see a problem, considering the savings for taxpayers. He said the security workers will do a professional job.
"I don't understand the brouhaha," Clausen said. "It blows my mind that it has been so controversial."
The union representing sheriff’s deputies says outsourcing courthouse security violates their contract and could result in a grievance against Woodbury County. The duties for a court security worker are outlined in the existing union contract.
Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Trobaugh, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7177, said the public and courthouse workers will be less safe under the county's plan. He said in the event of a gun incident, any delay in response could give the perpetrator more time to move among offices.
"It is better to have existing trained law enforcement personnel who can handle it right then and there," Trobaugh said.
Drew, who attended a courthouse security seminar at the National Sheriff's Association Convention in Texas recently, said the consistent message is that the best practice is to use sheriff's office personnel.
"Your best line of protection is always the certified peace officer under the umbrella of the sheriff," he said.
Timm Fautsko, principal court management consultant at the National Center of State Courts in Denver, has reviewed 260 courthouse security programs. He said the local sheriff's office is the best agency to run and staff such programs.
He said as the county's chief law enforcement official, the sheriff is best equipped to oversee security and incident response.
"It keeps it seamless," Fautsko said.
At the same time, Fautsko said he gets the county's need to save money.
"It is not best practice, but understandable," he said. "We understand the economy today."
RESTRICTED TO 1 ENTRANCE
Fautsko said the most effective security programs limit access to one door, have metal detectors and X-ray machines that visitors must pass through, interior and exterior cameras, signs advising what is and isn't allowed in the building and at least three people monitoring the public entrance. He said one worker should operate the magnetometer, with a second handling the X-ray equipment and a third routing people through it all.
The Woodbury County Courthouse will be restricted to one entrance, have two pieces of scanning technology and three workers, one of them a supervisor. Cameras will be added later.
Dubuque County closely follows Fautsko's model, with four security workers in the morning and three in the afternoon staffing a single entrance with a metal detector and X-ray machine. Sheriff's Deputy Shane Bockenstedt has supervised the courthouse security program since it was put in place in 2006. It includes Bockenstedt and eight retired law enforcement workers who work for the sheriff's office and have arrest powers and can carry weapons.
Bockenstedt said the guards frequently detect visitors carrying knives, with perhaps a dozen guns over the past eight years.
"Our system works. I'm sure because of it, we've prevented things," he said.
"We are hiring guys who know how to deal with people," he added.
Johnson County's Pulkrabek said using deputies is the most efficient staffing decision because of their authority to investigate and make an arrest if warranted. He added their presence is also reassuring to people in the building.
"Fully uniformed and armed deputies provide a calming factor in times of stress," he said.
Pottawattamie County, the most recent large county to beef up courthouse security, installed 45 cameras in its courthouse in February. Deputies in the building monitor the cameras.
The Pottawattamie County Board also decided in June to add a walk-through metal detector and X-ray machine technology at a single entrance. Board Chairman Loren Knauss said the county chose a hybrid staffing model for the scanner, with a deputy supervising civilians who have security experience. He said the supervising deputy would handle any arrests in the courthouse.
Knauss said that arrangement has worked well in nearby Sarpy County, Neb., and he expects it will in Pottawattamie.
Story County has its courts, sheriff's office, county attorney's office and jail in the courthouse, and an administration building houses most other county departments. The administration building has a few security cameras, but no security personnel.
The Story County Courthouse contains cameras, plus a metal detector and X-ray machine that can be used during high-profile trials. Story County Board Chairman Paul Toot said that equipment is staffed by one sheriff's deputy at judges' request; otherwise, the sole entrance isn't staffed.
Toot said every few months, the board talks about needing more security measures. He said the sheriff recently showed the board a judge's letter requesting more.
If the county adds more security to the courthouse, Toot said, there will be pressure to also add it at the administration building, for a combined $1 million annually.
"You always wish you had the budget capacity to man the door all the time, but you don't," Toot said.
Cost was the deciding factor for Black Hawk County, said County Board member Frank Magsamen. He acknowledged the security workers don't carry weapons but said the system provides sound security at a defensible price.
"To this point, we've been satisfied with the security service provided," Magsamen said.
COST IS BIG FACTOR
Woodbury County Board member Mark Monson, of Sergeant Bluff, initially voted against hiring civilians to guard the courthouse, preferring to rely on the Sheriff's Office. In the end, he joined the 4-1 majority vote to ensure some form of security plan advanced. Monson said past attempts to add security have fizzled and that couldn't be allowed to happen again.
"Something is better than nothing. I really think it should be with the sheriff, who has trained personnel," Monson said. "I would hope down the road we would move it back to the sheriff."
Supervisor David Tripp, a former corrections officer, voted against the hiring plan. Clausen, board Chairman George Boykin and Smith voted in favor.
Clausen said saving money is important.
"That is the big piece," he said. "We can do it much more reasonably the way we are doing it."
The plan was scheduled to start July 1, when the new fiscal year allowed the county to spend the money. Full implementation will be between Aug. 1 and Sept. 1, Human Resources Director Ed Gilliland said.
More than 40 people have applied for the security jobs. The two nonsupervisory positions will be filled by about seven part-timers.
On Tuesday, the County Board interviewed four finalists for the supervisor position, and made an job offer to the top candidate.
Experienced security trainers will provide training, Gilliland said.
"We are going to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the citizens of Woodbury County and the employees in the building," Gilliland said.
Fautsko praised Woodbury County for taking steps to make the courthouse safer and said any county launching a security program may not be able to employ all the best practices at once due to budgetary restrictions. However, he said, providing security is an ongoing process. County officials should continue researching the topic through regular meetings of committees made up of stakeholders in the building.
"Slow but sure systemic changes make the public safer," Fautsko said.