Originally created 12/22/99

Security lacking at Municipal Building



Richmond County is leaving itself open to "a security breach, an unfortunate incident" because of its open access to the county Municipal Building and Law Enforcement Center.

That's the finding of a committee of officials who traveled to other Georgia cities to study their security measures and found Richmond County's lacking by comparison. The study, requested by Augusta Mayor Bob Young, was sparked by a meeting with judges and other elected officials who have offices in the buildings and are concerned about safety.

After receiving copies of the study, Augusta commissioners approved $150,000 in next year's budget for security improvements. Money from $10 million in sales tax revenue that's been set aside for building improvements could be used to buy equipment but can't be used to provide salaries for additional personnel.

"We're at a time when people are doing some pretty `off the wall' things, and because of these actions people are getting hurt and killed," Mr. Young said. "We have to be conscious of the safety of the people who work in the building, people who come into the building on business, visitors who come to the building."

The report offered an overview of several counties' security systems and an in-depth look at measures in Savannah, Macon and Athens.

Those cities restrict people coming into the buildings to one or two entrances where search procedures are in place. Metal detectors are available at courtrooms. In Savannah, city employees have identification badges but still pass through metal detectors. Employees in Macon and Athens have electronic cards that open separate entrances or allow them to bypass metal detectors.

In contrast, there is no restricted access at nine entrances to Richmond County's municipal building on Greene Street, nor to courtrooms and some offices in the Law Enforcement Center on Walton Way.

"Any thoughts that `it can't happen here' are sadly out of touch with recent occurrences of violence at public buildings around the country," according to the report's summary.

"If we think that everybody coming in the front door and going out the back door is OK, we're going to get caught in a position where something happens and it is too late," said sheriff's Chief Deputy Sid Hatfield, committee co-chairman. "I was really surprised to find that other cities had so much security compared to Augusta. To me, it really was something vs. nothing."

The committee that assembled the report included a caveat that an outside party should evaluate the buildings before a final plan is drawn up. But suggestions already presented include improving outdoor lighting, separating employee and public parking, restricting entrances and equipping them with walk-though metal detectors and X-ray machines for packages.

The county has asked the U.S. Marshals Service to conduct an outside security evaluation, but the agency has a backlog of requests and can't say when a survey could be done. Mr. Young said he plans to ask area congressmen to expedite the process.

The outside survey and a space study of the Municipal Building should be completed before the final security plan is drawn up, the mayor said.

Security ideas

Some suggestions for improving security at Augusta's Municipal Building and Law Enforcement Center:

Separate employee parking and public parking and install surveillance cameras to monitor employee safety. Enclose parking for judges and take down signs that announce the spaces are reserved for judges.

Enclose outside heating and cooling units with a fence and keep mechanical rooms locked.

Provide adequate outside lighting and trim shrubbery.

Restrict entrances the public can use and equip them with walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines for packages.

Post conspicuous signs that state prohibitions against weapons.

Restrict access to the office floor of judges and to courtrooms.

Plan an identification-card and key-card entrance system for employees who work in the buildings.

Equip offices that accept large amounts of cash with a recessed public counter that includes an alarm and a secured compartment to pass money.

Install an alarm system in courtrooms, judges' offices, the Augusta Commission meeting room, the mayor's office and county offices that collect money.

Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223.