Guards without Guns

June 17, 2009 10:34:30 AM PDT
Fresno County's Sheriff is expressing concern with changes coming to local courthouses. Private unarmed guards will be taking over some security duties. Sheriff Deputies don't agree with the changes. Fresno's court system faces a huge budget deficit. At the same time, the new juvenile justice center opens in July. The presiding judge said to keep the new building safe smaller courthouses will be losing armed guards at the entrances.

Sheriff Deputies search everyone who enters Fresno County's courts. Come July, the armed guards will no longer staff entrances at the county's eight outlying branches. Most are like the Selma office with one judge and a handful of workers. Presiding Judge Bruce Smith said private security screeners are nearly 50-percent cheaper than an armed deputy. Smith said, "We felt that particular station, determining if somebody is coming in with a weapon or not, we thought that could be handled by somebody who wasn't packing a weapon."

Deputies will be moved from smaller courts to the county's new juvenile justice center. Sheriff Margaret Mims agreed to the changes, but Mims pointed to recent court house violence. In Merced, a man with knives ran past unarmed security, got into a court room where deputies shot and killed him. Also a Stockton judge suffered stab wounds after a defendant attacked her. Sheriff Mims feared unarmed guards in Fresno couldn't handle an outbreak of violence. Mims said, "The security guards won't have any more right to make an arrest than a regular citizen? A deputy sheriff can make arrests, use deadly force. They have the training." Smith said, "We are very reluctant to go any further with this. What we want to see how well this works."

Judge Smith expects his budget deficit to be in the millions. State leaders are considering closing all courthouses one day per month. Locally, court staff fear layoffs could be the next step. Smith said, "I can't say anything is off the table at this point. I can tell you in terms of priorities, our priorities are to maintain the current levels of staff and not lay off anybody until it is absolutely necessary."

Judge Smith could not provide an exact amount of his budget deficit. The judge will know that number once the governor and lawmakers approve a budget.

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