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VOL. 123 | NO. 164 | Thursday, August 21, 2008

Full-Time Deputies Responsible For Courtroom Security

By Rebekah Hearn

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After much debate, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners has decided to keep only full-time sheriff’s deputies in courtrooms to serve as security officers.

A resolution initially proposed by Commissioner Wyatt Bunker would have allowed for the courts to replace some of the full-time deputies with part-time retired deputies. The resolution was offered as a way for the county to save money during the current fiscal year.

The decision, which was cemented at the Aug. 18 meeting of the County Commission, will keep court security operating the way it has been: with only full-time deputies serving as security for Shelby County courtrooms as well as jury sequestrations.

After several meetings on the issue by the commission and its Committee on Law Enforcement, Fire, Corrections and Courts, the body finally voted the resolution down, with only Commissioners Bunker and Carpenter voting yes.

The Memphis Bar Association, Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell and local judges were vocal in opposing the resolution.

Money (not) saved

Bunker originally proposed the resolution to open a discussion about how the county could save money in the coming year.

While he said he originally felt the commission was in support of the issue, “a lot of people backed out at a later time as the sheriff semi-pulled his support away,” Bunker said.

The implementation of some part-time security officers could have saved the county $500,000 to $600,000 in its $1.12 billion budget.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy pointed out that Bunker’s resolution was not proposing to replace all the courtroom deputies with part-time deputies.

“The sheriff was not suggesting that all courtroom deputies be replaced with part-time; he wasn’t even suggesting that most or a significant fraction of courtroom deputies be replaced with part-time,” Mulroy said. “He was saying, just in those courtrooms where there were already three or four deputies, take one … and make them part-time.”

Question of adequate security

The resolution also dealt with whether part-time security officers could be used as security for sequestered juries. Many commissioners said at the July 30 meeting that they felt doing so would compromise the security of the jurors.

Mulroy said that certain cases, such as those involving gang members or people who could put juries at risk, would call for full-time deputies; however, he said he didn’t see a problem with working with the idea on a trial basis.

“As I made clear at committee, I don’t really think that a compelling case has been made that those very minimal, discreet, focused changes in courtroom personnel would really create a significant, increased risk of violence occurring,” Mulroy said.

One of the concerns brought up at the July 30 meeting was whether part-time retired deputies would be physically fit enough to defend the courtroom if a violent situation arose.

“I know the sheriff well enough; he would not put anyone in those courtrooms that was not physically fit to defend someone that was in jeopardy,” Commissioner Joyce Avery said at the meeting.

However, the commission – following the judges, lawyers and the MBA’s lead – said they were against putting the resolution to the test, even on a trial basis.

Papal dispensations

At the July 30 committee meeting, Commissioner Mike Carpenter said he wanted to see more data on the issue before he made any decision to vote for or against it. (At that meeting, Carpenter did vote yes to defer the discussion for two weeks.)

Mulroy also said that to make an informed decision on the issue, he wanted to see data from other courts that use part-time deputies for some security needs.

“If you Google “part-time court security,” you get a lengthy list of references to different jurisdictions around the country that use at least some part-time officers,” Mulroy said.

“I had asked for comparative data from other jurisdictions about this and couldn’t get it,” he said. “The Sheriff’s Department said that they checked throughout Tennessee, and didn’t know of another place that did it – except for Nashville, which has a very, very different system. But I wasn’t really limiting my inquiry to Tennessee.”

Mulroy said instead of the data that he and some other commissioners would have liked to see, all they had to go by were the statements of the judges and lawyers; however, Mulroy said that perhaps not everyone understood the resolution wouldn’t have replaced all courtroom deputies with part-time ones.

“I was very frustrated by the character of the whole debate, particularly because (the) resolution really asked the judges and the sheriff to work together collaboratively to consider some sort of use of part-time courtroom security. And the idea that even working to consider it collaboratively was so controversial, I think was a bit surprising,” Mulroy said.

However, Mulroy said the reason he voted no on the resolution was because the sheriff backed away from it.

“It’s hard to be more Catholic than the Pope,” he said.

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