Court security funding a state-wide crisis

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BRATTLEBORO — A private security company is advertising for officers to work at the Windham County Courthouse following the announcement that the Windham County Sheriff's Office will not be renewing its contract to provide deputies.

On Monday, July 11, Securitas, a firm headquartered in Sweden, posted an online advertisement for six to eight security officers, with armed positions beginning at $18 and unarmed positions starting at $15. The ad asks for people with experience in law enforcement, corrections and/or the military.

While a new firm might be able to fill the deputies' shoes at the courthouse, several key players have concerns with someone else taking over.

"With the tragedy that happened in Vermont last summer with Lara Sobel and the tragedy that happened earlier this month in a Michigan courthouse, this is not the time to reduce, bargain with or mishandle the safety and the security of the public servants and general public within the courthouse," said Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver.

Sobel was a social worker for the Department for Children and Families who was shot and killed in a parking lot outside City Place, the new Agency of Education building in Barre, as she was leaving work last August. On July 11 of this year, in Michigan, two court bailiffs were killed and a deputy was injured Monday after an inmate grabbed the deputy's gun outside a holding cell in a Michigan courthouse.

Sheriff Keith Clark made the decision last month that if his office does not receive a contractual increase of 10 to 12 percent in fiscal 2017, he would not be able to break even and he would withdraw his contract. The Judiciary offered all sheriff's offices in Vermont a 3.5-percent rate increase for fiscal year 2017, but Clark did not accept it. Clark did offer a contract extension until the end of August to give court administrators time to find the extra money or a replacement. By Aug. 31, the Vermont Court Administrator's Office will need to enter into a courthouse security contract with a different entity for the Brattleboro and Newfane courthouses.

According to Matt Riven, chief of finance and administration for the Vermont Court Administrator's Office, the WCSO 2016 contract provides for fixed monthly payments that equated to roughly $25 per hour. The Judiciary offered a 3.5-percent increase as funded by the Legislature, which would have translated to an effective hourly rate of approximately $25.88 per hour.

But Clark said that's just not enough. Last fiscal year's contract totaled $250,914, but this year he was asking for an hourly rate of about $35 per hour. "I believe that my rate request of $35 per hour is reasonable for what we provide and the costs to retain qualified deputies."

Courthouse security involves screening at the entrance, managing the court room, managing jurors, patrolling inside and outside the building and a bailiff inside the court room when a judge is at the bench.

Clark further noted the current full-time court deputies receive high-quality benefits that include health insurance, dental coverage and retirement along with paid vacation and sick time, benefits he cannot fully offer at the $25.88 rate. Clark told the Reformer he can no longer afford to subsidize the court contract and that's why he's pulling out.

"The Windham County Sheriff counter-offered with an amount that is significantly higher, and beyond the Judiciary's ability to absorb in its budget," said Riven. "When we were unable to come to terms, the Sheriff formally announced that they would not be contracting for services for FY 2017."

Overall, Clark feels his request was reasonable. "Our deputies are properly vetted, trained and work within comprehensive policies and procedures. Some may consider $35 to be too high a rate, but when you consider all the aspects, it barely covers direct and indirect costs. I am concerned the courts utilizing a private security entity will not have properly vetted and trained security officers and or there will be constant turnover due to low pay and lack of benefits."

While Clark may be the only sheriff pulling out of a court security contract, William Bohnyak, Orange County Sheriff and current president of the Vermont Sheriffs' Association, said about seven of Vermont's 14 sheriffs had considered not renewing their contracts for the FY 2017 year.

There has not been a pay rate increase to all 14 sheriff departments in Vermont over the past two years, according to Bohnyak, who said sheriff offices around the state need a 5- to 6-percent increase in order to survive and make up for the lack of raises over the years. Further, Bohnyak said in the past, the sheriffs have negotiated for pay with the Vermont Court Administrator's Office. This year he was told they would have to go through legislators, which didn't make any sense to him.

"If nothing changes in a year or two as far as reasonable increases to stop the sheriffs from subsidizing the court contracts, other sheriffs may be pulling out too," Bohnyak said. "But overall sheriffs want to remain caretakers of the court, they've done it for a 100 years plus."

Riven admitted the reimbursement the Judiciary can offer may causer problems for other sheriffs in Vermont. "The Windham situation raises a larger issue as to whether the Legislature will fund future rate increases for sheriffs' security contracts at a level that will be acceptable to the sheriffs in other counties."

According to the Court Administrator's 2016 Security Report, the Judiciary recommends an increase in court officer coverage of $1.8 million to fund 35 additional officers, implemented over two years. In addition, the report reveals that the Judiciary advises providing $2.1 million of capital appropriation for security infrastructure improvements, including $315,000 in 2017 and $500,000 annually beginning in 2018/2019.

According to Riven, the Judiciary recently issued a request-for-proposals and is currently looking at other ways to provide security in Brattleboro and Newfane.

But given this notion, local attorneys are fearful that a new entity could jeopardize their safety as well as the safety of their clients, officials and citizens.

"There will be significant impacts on courthouse security if law enforcement officers are not handling that contract," said Shriver. "There is very specific training required for courthouse security, which is very important to all of us who work in the courthouse every day as well as to members of the public who visit. It is necessary to have officers with law enforcement powers present if crimes are committed there."

James Valente, a defense attorney and president of Costello, Valente & Gentry, P.C., said if a new firm is hired for courthouse security, he would prefer to have armed security, but noted if someone is armed and not well trained, it can be "just as dangerous" as not being armed.

"You can have people coming through this area that are charged with anything up to and including murder; there are people charged with murder who are out on bail and they come through the courthouse just like the divorce litigants, the traffic court litigants, the people here for juvenile court and the people here for probate court," said Valente. "So all of these people are mixed together in this little building because we try to centralize services to save money and so I'd rather have a trained armed person with a team that has similar training and with people who know each other and have a long history of working together, ready to deal with someone who is really crazy."

According to the Court Administrator's Office, officers reported 174 "security operational incidents" at Vermont courthouses in 2015. Such incidents included two stabbings, five assaults, five bomb threats, 21 disorderly conduct complaints and two escapes.

According to the security report, the Judiciary has repeatedly expressed concerns about the budget process regarding security officer costs. "Last year, the Judiciary requested additional funds for hourly rate increases for service contracts with the sheriffs, but neither the Governor nor ultimately the Legislature provided these funds. ... At the rates currently provided by the Judiciary, several sheriffs have indicated that they 'lose money' on these services and may decline to participate in the future. If the Judiciary is not provided resources to fund reasonable cost increases, it may jeopardize the Judiciary's ability to procure its current level of coverage, let alone seek the additional coverage that is needed."

John Mabie, a defense attorney with Corum Mabie Cook Prodan Angell & Secrest, PLC, said armed security is not as much of a concern to him as is a security officer's "presence and professionalism. As somebody who's there's regularly, I honestly don't notice the weapons and I cant say if they were there without their weapons, whether it would necessarily be as safe. I come and go and they seem to be professional. I've never seen a weapon drawn and I think it's more about their presence and professionalism and responding to situations without escalation."

Valente noted the county and the state have a heroin problem, which is adding to the number of people on any given day in the courthouse. He believes the highest amount of people traffic is often on the first floor of the Brattleboro courthouse, where most people are present to discuss their traffic tickets, visit the magistrate courtroom or where people may argue child support issues. "You've got a bunch of private citizens down here who are not prepared to defend themselves and it's right beyond the entrance to the courthouse entrance and you really want someone who is well trained to be monitoring that."

Aside from the first floor part of the building, the second floor can be just as tense, whether it be inside one of the two courtrooms, out in the hallway or inside a conference room. Valente noted that during certain jury trials, the courtroom is filled to maximum capacity.

"I just don't understand where they are going to find private security officers who are experienced in doing these very particular, strange situational management pass in a court room," said Valente.

Valente noted the holding rooms and cells where attorneys sometimes meet with their clients are a high-security area. Valente enters the holding cell and will sit on a bench next to his client, with nothing in between to separate them. This is a sound-proof room that insures confidentiality between attorneys and their clients. Valente says attorneys rely on the deputies to monitor through a small glass window in case something might escalate, as they cannot hear what is going on inside the cell. There are about two deputies that handle that role at a time, depending on the demand.

Another problem that arises with a new security firm is if there is no law enforcement officer present, the Brattleboro Police Department may need to step in to help out or make an arrest.

Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said he is aware of the ongoing security issue at the court house. He said there has been a meeting scheduled with court administrators and law enforcement agencies in Windham County, and until then, he does not know what might be required of the Brattleboro Police Department if the sheriff no longer provides security.

"However, we are well-prepared to respond to any situations at the court house," said Fitzgerald. "We respond to any calls in Brattleboro."

Retired Windham County Judge David Suntag told the Reformer that trained and certified security personnel are important for any court house

"We had that when I was a judge there," he said. "They were trained and very organized."

Suntag, who fills in on the bench when needed, said he has "no idea" whether a private security firm would adequately replace the sheriff's department.

When asked about the Securitas advertisement, Riven said he could not discuss the selection process, though he did acknowledge that no contract has been signed. He said it would "not be appropriate" for him to discuss it any further, given that it is officially an open RFP. In addition, given the RFP process, Riven advised he cannot say whether future security will be armed or unarmed.

Securitas did not return an email or a phone call, requesting comment.

Clark said he does not foresee any layoffs in his office, and full time deputies will remain full time and will be assigned to other duties throughout Windham County. Deputies that are per diem are likely to see less hours.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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