justice center

In an effort to improve the security at the Coffee County Justice Center, county officials are in the process of applying for a state grant, according to Andy Farrar, purchasing agent for the county.

Farrar presented information about the project to the Coffee County Budget and Finance committee Tuesday.

Because the grant comes with a 10-percent matching requirement, the committee had to approve the application.

All members voted in support of seeking grant funding from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). 

“We are applying for a court security grant for $68,000,” Farrar said. “There is a 10-percent match requirement that will be paid out of the court security fund.”

The county has $55,000 in that fund, according to Director of Accounts and Budgets Marianna Edinger.

Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell has met with representatives of the sheriff’s department, county judges, Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott and Coffee County Public Defender John Nicoll to identify items required to improve the safety of the justice center.

“We have met several times trying to come up with a list of items and prioritize them,” Cordell said. “We came up with the most critically needed items at this point.”


Planned improvements

If the grant application is approved, the money will be used to add traffic bollards in front of the justice center and protective panels to some areas in courtrooms and court clerk’s offices.

The justice center already has concrete traffic bollards protecting the main entrance; however, they are temporary and on loan from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

In order to bring the security up to minimum standards, protection panels for bullet resistance must be installed at some of the clerks’ work spaces and other areas of the building.

Officials also plan to purchase and install a public address warning system for the building to be used in the event of emergencies.

 The grant would also provide for the purchase of a camera and an alarm system to monitor the exterior of the justice center. Sixteen cameras will be added to the existing system to allow for monitoring of the exterior of the building.

Additionally, the justice center’s exterior doors, some of which were installed in the 1960s, need to be replaced, and the grant money is expected to help with that project as well.

Automated External Defibrillators (AED), CPR and trauma medical kits are also on the list of needed items. These emergency kits will be mounted in secured, easily accessible boxes on each floor of the justice center, allowing for quick response for critical medical situations.


Breach of security

In June of last year, an inmate shot and injured two deputies at the courthouse. Before shooting and killing himself nearby, the inmate fled through areas of the building that were not monitored by cameras and through a public area near several clerks’ offices and out of the center’s main entrance.

According to the grant application, “unstable individuals have made threats” to court clerk employees and judges due to rulings, with one of those threats leading to a justice center lockdown and the posting of additional protection officers.

Numerous prisoners have escaped from the court and holding areas, fleeing through public areas and out of unmonitored exits, according to the grant application.

So far in 2018, the justice center has experienced two bomb threats, and the lack of communication through a public address system has resulted in confusing and time-consuming communications for evacuation.


$2 million available statewide

This is the second round of grants launched by Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to help make Tennessee’s courthouses safer.

The state has appropriated $2 million in funds for court security grants this year. Last year, similar grants led to significant security upgrades in 66 counties throughout the state, including Coffee County.

According to the AOC, funding preference will be given to counties with courthouses that do not currently meet the present minimum courtroom security standards as well as counties that have experienced a courtroom security breach during the 12-month period between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.

When the first court security grant program was launched in 2017, nearly half of Tennessee counties didn’t meet the standards and some had serious security deficiencies, according to AOC.

Elena Cawley can be reached by email at ecawley@tullahomanews.com.