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VOL. 123 | NO. 154 | Thursday, August 7, 2008

Commission Delays Courtroom Security Resolution

By Rebekah Hearn

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Budget shortfalls are a main reason Shelby County judges could begin seeking alternative courtroom security arrangements.

A resolution that would encourage judges to consider outside security methods such as incorporating the use of part-time retired Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies has been proposed by Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Wyatt Bunker.

But at its July 30 meeting, the commission voted 8-3 to defer for two weeks the resolution. The issue already had been deferred once from the July 21 meeting.

Currently, the courts use full-time deputies as their security agents.

Sheriff Mark Luttrell originally had floated the idea of using retired deputies as security in order to save the county money during hard times, although he since has said the idea was simply a suggestion.

The reason for Bunker’s proposal also was primarily budgetary, and several commissioners noted during last week’s meeting that the county is struggling with its budget for the coming year.

However, the resolution doesn’t have the full support of the judges nor the Memphis Bar Association. Written comments were accepted from the judges following the July 21 commission meeting, although at the recent meeting, none of the comments were read and none of the judges got up to speak.

Issue of contention

The commissioners’ positions on the issue ranged from those who felt strongly for or against the resolution to those who felt the county needs more time to examine the issue.

Luttrell, in speaking before the commission, said he took courtroom security to be a very important issue and would never put any security officer into a courtroom that he didn’t think was fit to perform the job.

“Without the support of the courts, the prosecutors and the local bar, I believe this proposition … should be voted down,” Luttrell said, although he did acknowledge the “serious budget issues” the commission faced for the coming year.

After Luttrell spoke, the floor opened for the commissioners to comment, and Bunker spoke first.

“I didn’t know the sheriff was going to withdraw his support,” Bunker said. “If the sheriff is not on board anymore, it doesn’t make sense to push it.”

However, Bunker did come back near the end of the discussion to say he would put off withdrawing his resolution until he had read all the comments that had come in from the judges.

The Memphis Bar Association, in a written statement, said it “supports the continued use of full-time deputy sheriffs in Shelby County courtrooms as the best and most effective way of ensuring the public’s security.”

Representatives at the MBA were out of the office this week and couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.

Other points of view

Commissioner Deidre Malone said, “We have to weigh the issue of safety first,” although she did commend Bunker for his efforts to try to balance security and budgetary issues with this resolution.

Commissioner James Harvey said security comes first and foremost.

“I would like to look at possibly … taking away from other areas before compromising security (in our courtrooms),” Harvey said. “I support killing this issue. It’s my desire that we find something else to negotiate with.”

Commissioner Joe Ford also said he would be voting against the resolution.

Commissioner Mike Carpenter said no data back up the claim that using retired part-time deputies would compromise courtroom security.

Carpenter said the commission should not vote down the resolution until something more than “anecdotal data” is produced. Commissioner Mike Ritz agreed with Carpenter.

Commissioner George Flinn suggested that in order to increase courtroom security, perhaps the commission should look at “physical restraints” such as bulletproof glass.

“Has it come to that point in this world? I don’t know,” he said.

Commissioner J.W. Gibson said he backed the idea of a one-year trial period for the original proposal.

Commissioner Henri Brooks said she will go with the judges.

“This is a very serious issue. … It has to do with public safety and safety in the courtroom,” she said, pointing to the increased incidents of violence within Shelby County courtrooms.

“I think we should listen to the judges. They experience this; they feel this in their courtroom every single day.”

Commissioner Joyce Avery said she was “really torn.”

“This is a way to save money, and I commend Mr. Bunker for proposing it,” she said, calling it “a hot-button issue.”

Fitness questions

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 serious 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,” Avery said.

The commissioners discussed briefly before deciding to defer the issue whether fitness tests should be administered` to potential part-time retired deputies who might be hired for courtroom security should the resolution be passed.

Luttrell did point out that should the resolution pass, the pool of potential candidates for the job of providing courtroom security would be a small one, since the strictest of qualifications must be met by the applicant, both mentally and physically.

The commission will address the issue again at its Aug. 13 meeting.

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