In an effort to improve the safety at the Coffee County Justice Center, Coffee County Sherriff’s department is applying for a state court security grant, according to Capt. Frank Watkins with the sheriff’s department.
If the county’s grant application is approved, the funds will be used for installing a keycard system, ballistic glass panels and doors.
$2 million in grant money
The grant program, which will distribute a total of $2 million statewide, aims to improve security at courthouses across Tennessee. The Administrative Office of the Courts has started the initiative with one-time money set aside by state lawmakers and Gov. Bill Haslam, according to officials.
A committee of statewide judges will determine the criteria and qualifications for awards, with preference given to counties with courtrooms that don’t meet minimum security standards, and counties that had a courtroom security breach between July 2016 the end of this June.
Watkins said Coffee County has been specifically mentioned during discussions of the grant by state officials.
Recent breach of security
In June, an inmate shot and injured two deputies at the courthouse before escaping and shooting and killing himself nearby.
Deputies Wade Bassett and Wendell Bowen were injured by inmate Michael Bell, who had been transported from the jail to the justice center. After a struggle, Bell obtained Bassett’s gun. Bassett suffered ligament damage to his thumb when Bell bit him. Bowen was shot.
“Both officers are doing fine,” Watkins said. “Wade Basset is back to work and Wendell Bowen is expected in the next two or three weeks.”
The grant application will include a list of improvements that would enhance court security at the Coffee County Justice Center.
“We were mentioned in the grant specifically because of the shooting that we had in June, so the Administrative Office of the Courts is aware of what we have going on,” Watkins said, “We are hoping that will help us out to get money for security enhancements.”
One of the proposed upgrades involves the installment of a keycard system, said Watkins.
“We are looking at having keycard access to the courthouse,” Watkins said. “That will provide a more secure way of access since the keycards can’t be easily copied.”
With a specific equipment necessary to copy a keycard, this will be a significant improvement, said Watkins.
“The keycard system works on roles and permission,” Watkins said. “So, based on what your need to get into certain areas is, the keycard will allow or deny you access. (They system) also has logs to tell if somebody tried to get to a place they didn’t have access to, how many times they attempted it, and what time they attempted it.”
The system can be programed so access is allowed for certain times of the day and certain days of the week.
“If you have people that come on routine basis, such as cleaning crew, you can program the keycards to allow access only for the time they are supposed to be cleaning,” he said. “The keycards work in conjunction with the exit doors to allow an alarm to be sent out to some of these doors.”
The guards will know what doors are open, and when they are open.
The grant money would also be used to upkeep the walk-through metal detector at the entrance of the justice center.
“We will make sure we have our magnetometer at the entrance current and calibrated,” Watkins said. “We recently purchased that walk-through metal detector for the front of the justice center.”
The detector determines the proximity of the metal.
“It has lights to let (security personnel) know where the metal is related to the height of the person,” Watkins said. “The guards also have wands to verify what it is after they get an alert.”
The facility’s doors will also be enhanced if the county’s grant application is successful.
“We are also looking at securing some of the inner doors,” Watkins said. “We want to install some metal, ballistic doors to section (some areas) off, so that we can shut some vulnerable spots off in an event of emergency.”
Computers, which will be used to control the system, will also be necessary.
“We need a couple of computers that will work in conjunction with the key system and with the recently-installed camera system at the court house,” Watkins said. “That help us better monitor the cameras.”
Some steps upping the security have already been taken.
“Now, we don’t allow cell phones in the building, unless they have permission,” Watkins said. “In the light of the recent shooting, the public will have to understand that we will have to improve our security. We would like the public to feel safe in that building.”
Watkins estimated the proposed improvements will cost approximately $50,000 to complete.
“The keycard system with the computer is about $15,000,” Watkins said. “The metal ballistic doors are about $500 each. We are going to be updating our benches and witness stands, too. They will have ballistic panels.”
One of the areas where ballistic glass will be installed is the entrance of the building.
“We have to secure the entrance of the building, where we had the attack when Mr. Bell came through and shot Officer Bowen,” Watkins said. “We will make sure there are ballistic panels at that counters. Ballistic glass will be installed there to create a barrier.”
County officials have been discussing ways the courthouse security can be improved for several months.
“The grant happened to be at the right time because we have been having meetings talking about improving security, and we have been trying to find funding for that,” Watkins said. “We have a courtroom security budget; by statute some of the court fees go that fund. We were trying to stretch that as far as we could.”
There is not a match requirement for the grant.
“We have to put in how much we have in our budget, and they (the Administrative Office of Courts) will take that in conjunction with our list of needed upgrades to determine how much they are going to give,” Watkins said. “They will provide the difference to ensure there is enough to pay for the necessary security enhancements.”
The grant cannot be spent for personnel expenses. After the upgrades have been completed, the Administrative Office of Courts will reimburse the county.
The deadline for filing grant applications is Oct. 16.
“We will probably know if we are awarded about two to three weeks after that,” Watkins said. “I would suspect we would hear something back pretty quickly.”
Highway Safety Grant
The sheriff’s department was recently awarded the Highway Safety Grant.
“We applied in April for this grant to help us with DUI, distracted driving and aggressive driving out in the public,” Watkins said. “We were awarded $30,000 from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office. That’s going to get us some cameras and laptops for officers to record data and work crime scenes.”
The stat-gathering process will be expedited.
“We’ll be able to get more accurate stats to the state,” he said. “The cameras will help out with the DUI enforcement. Having the video evidence will help during the prosecuting stage, too. We will be able to start utilizing the grant money Oct. 1.”