Discussion at St. Clair County Commission meeting

St. Clair County attorney James Hill III talks during Tuesday’s County Commission meeting. Former Probate Judge Wallace Wyatt Jr., seated, says it is unnecessary to search everyone who enters the St. Clair County Courthouse in Pell City.

ASHVILLE – Former St. Clair County Probate Judge Wallace Wyatt Jr. believes it’s unnecessary to search everyone who enters the courthouse in Pell City.

“I am in opposition to all of this searching,” Wyatt told the County Commission on Tuesday during the panel’s regular meeting. “You can go to courthouses in Talladega County, Calhoun County, Blount County and Etowah County and never be searched.

“Now, I am not opposed to searching those people going into court. But I think it is very unnecessary to search citizens coming in to renew their tags, purchase a driver’s license or pay your taxes.”

Wyatt said the courthouse in Pell City is not secure because people could sneak in one of the side doors.

“We are harassing the people who are paying the bills, and it is an insult to them,” he said. “Do you realize how humiliating that is to people – to be searched?”

Commission Chairman Paul Manning disagreed.

“It’s all about safety,” he said. “The value of that means a lot. If I go to a legislative session in Montgomery, I have to go through security. I know that before I get there.

“There is more crime happening today than ever before, and, yes, I have heard some minor complaints, but I feel like we have the best approach that we can handle with the people we see in Pell City.”

County attorney James Hill III said Wyatt used the term “these days” in his comments.

“That’s part of my concern as the county attorney with regard to security measures in our public buildings,” Hill said. “‘These days’ are very different from days 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

“We see in the news just in the past month where individuals are entering into public buildings and shooting and killing public employees. It’s happening in public schools as well.

“It is true that we have heightened our security in St. Clair County. We’ve done that in response to what we see happening. We ask people who enter the courthouse in Pell City to go through a metal detector to ensure they are not carrying weapons.”

Hill showed those in attendance a knife taken from a person who was entering the courthouse in Pell City. The knife looked like a credit card.

“We have situations in St. Clair County that are a risk, and in ‘these days,’ that is the case,” Hill said. “Just this past week, we have addressed a matter in one of our court systems, a sentencing whereby we had an individual who made a threat to both courthouses right here in St. Clair County.

“It causes me concern to think that this commission would consider reducing security in 2019, when I think we see a heightened threat. … There is a legal liability there, and a public outcry that we would face.”

Just in the past two years, many of the judges came to the commission concerned about some access points in the courthouse in Pell City that were not as secure as they wanted them to be, Hill said.

“This administration, as part of the courthouse renovation (Pell City), has locked down those security doors and made access into that courthouse more centralized,” Hill said. “We are funneling people into that metal detector so we can ensure the safety of our citizens and our employees.”

Hill said the County Commission has taken steps to improve security in public schools by doubling the number of school resource officers with the help of the Sheriff’s Office, municipalities and the St. Clair County school board.

“There is a heightened awareness for security,” Hill said. “There is also a heightened attention paid by this commission and public officials in this county to ensure as best as we can that the citizens of St. Clair County and the employees who work for this county are safe and secure when they are at the courthouse.

“As time progresses, I am sure additional security measures will be asked for and implemented.”

Wyatt said he did not want to alarm the judges, but there is no security at the courthouse in Pell City.

“You can come in the side door,” Wyatt said. “All you have to do is catch someone coming out, or you can get your buddy to go in and let you in.”

Commissioner Tommy Bowers

Bowers said he recently visited the courthouse in Pell City just to observe and talk to patrons to see if they had a problem with security.

“I asked the security (officials) if they knew how many people go through the metal detector a day,” Bowers said. “They told me that since the first of the year, 85,000 people have gone through the metal detector. To me, that was a surprising number.”

Bowers said he has only heard two complaints in the past several months, and they dealt with pocket knives, and security now has a box to put knives in before people go through the metal detectors.

“While I was there, I watched patrons go through the metal detector,” Bowers said. “If a person had to put a knife in the box, I followed them down the hall and talked to them. They told me it did not bother them to put their knife in the box.”

Bowers said there were about 75 residents who went through the metal detector while he was there, and he saw five to six of them thank the security guards for checking them.

Bowers said he saw guards check big belt buckles on men.

“When I asked why, they told me it’s because handcuff keys can be taped to the back of the buckle to give to prisoners,” Bowers said.

Presiding Circuit Court Judge Phil Seay

Seay said it was true that a man pled guilty the day before (Monday, June 10) to threatening to blow up the two courthouses, a couple of schools, and specifically threatened certain state and county employees.

“We have to ensure the safety of our citizens and courthouse employees,” Seay said. “The problem in Pell City is that we have the Circuit Clerk’s Office, Probate Office, Revenue Commissioner’s Office, District Attorney’s Office and others that are centrally located. I have many men and women in my courtroom who have been charged with serious crimes.”

Seay added that recently a takedown of a man occurred in the hallway between the circuit clerk’s area and probate judge’s area due to an active warrant. Seay said that same man went through the metal detector.

“What we’re doing right now may not protect the public completely, (but) it does help,” Seay said. “I agree with Judge Wyatt that we should not overburden the public, but I do believe at the very minimum, they should walk through a metal detector.”

Circuit Judge Bill Weathington

Weathington said one thing everyone could agree on is there needs to be some type of security.

“The question is – what type?” he asked. “That question has been addressed a number of ways since 9/11. Before 9/11, you could get to the airport a few minutes before takeoff, jump on the plane and be on your way. Now, you have to get to the airport an hour or so early. You have to go through a lot more security than you do here at this courthouse.

“While it may be aggravating to a point, it is done for our safety. This commission is in charge of the safety of everyone who visits the courthouse. What we don’t want to happen is a disaster and then react to it and put security measures in place. Every courthouse I go into has some form of security. I personally appreciate what the commission is doing.”

Reach Gary Hanner at ghanner@thestclairtimes.com.