Progress blocked by old doors at county courthouse |

Progress blocked by old doors at county courthouse

Christina Proctor

The directive was handed down: increase court security. The money was spent, the equipment arrived, and then … nothing happened. Like packages under a Christmas tree, thousands of dollars worth of security gadgets have sat just inside the El Dorado County Courts’ building in South Lake Tahoe for the last six months.

What seems to be the holdup? It all hinges on a few doors, officials said.

There are three entrances to the court building and only enough equipment and money to monitor one. The other problem is that one of the doors leads to 24-hour jail entrance that jail personnel claim is essential to their operation.

“We can’t just lock the other doors because of fire safety requirements,” said Alexander Aikman, court executive officer. “We need to replace the doors with ones that would work as emergency exits.”

El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker said he has requested the changes for months.

“I’ve made it clear that I think it’s a high priority, but I can’t make them do it,” Barker said.

Tim McSorley, the county’s facilities manager, said what appeared to be a simple idea became muddled with other issues.

“The further we get into the project, the more other issues come up,” McSorley said. “The jail has identified the one door as a necessity for releasing inmates, and allowing access into the booking area 24 hours a day. So we were asked to look at the feasibility of remodeling the building.”

The resulting plan, McSorley explained, is to build a wall creating a hallway to the jail entrance and a separate outside door. The remaining two doors would be converted to emergency exits, forcing visitors to enter and exit the court through one fixed point. McSorley said the new doors are on order, and construction on the new wall should begin by the middle of November.

“We anticipate that project to be up and running within the next couple of months,” McSorley added.

While problems kept popping up in South Lake Tahoe’s security plans, Christmas came early to Placerville. Aikman said security checkpoints were up and running at the Placerville Main Street court by mid-May. The other two West Slope court locations are staffed on a part-time basis.

“They haven’t found many guns, but there have been a large number of knives,” Aikman said. “The deputies have also reported that some people have walked up, seen the equipment, and turned around, only to come back later. Presumably, after they had gotten rid of anything they didn’t want the deputies to find.”

When the metal detectors and X-ray machines arrived, Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury, now presiding judge, said she worried they might detract from the court’s atmosphere as “a small, relaxed county courthouse.

“I see this measure as geared toward the potential of a problem, rather than an actual problem,” Kingsbury said.

The money for security checkpoints came as part of a directive by the California Judicial Council and former Governor Pete Wilson, and the county had no choice but to use it for security. The Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 consolidated all court funding decisions to the state level and made the state responsible for the costs of trial court operations. The state budgeted $33.2 million to upgrade California’s court security. El Dorado County received $615,000. About $115,000 was budgeted for the equipment, the remaining half million is being used to pay for new personnel.

When the equipment is brought out of its wrappings and installed, visitors to the courthouse will pass through a magnetometer, similar to the devices used in airports, and all bags, purses, and closed containers will be screened by an X-ray machine. Sheriff’s Capt. Bob Altmeyer said one additional full-time deputy sheriff will be hired to cover the check point and several more part-time deputies might be brought in to cover vacation times and sick leave. Altmeyer said the deputies’ presence in the main Placerville courthouse has stopped several confrontations between parties involved in family law cases.

“We’ve had positive comments from the Main Street courthouse,” Altmeyer said. “In light of the trends all over the country, anytime, anyplace, a situation with tragic results can happen.”

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