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County courthouse beefs up security

April 12, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN

Despite the occasional belligerent defendant and threatening letters directed at him, Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell said he feels safe and secure at work.

But the Washington County Courthouse, as it stands, is not safe enough for Sheriff Doug Mullendore.

Mullendore and county officials are working toward installing additional security devices, but dealing with a historic structure and satisfying the city fire marshal has proved difficult, said Gary Rohrer, Washington County's director of special projects.

Washington County owns the courthouse.

Mullendore is aware of altercations and shootings in courthouses across the nation and he wants to tighten security in Hagerstown to ensure such events don't happen here.

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Judges, inmates and civilians have all be involved in fights and shootings, and he wants stricter security to protect all three groups in Washington County, Mullendore said.

McDowell and Maj. Robert E. Hafer of the sheriff's department estimated that each judge receives one or two threats a year. Hafer is in charge of security at the courthouse.

A couple of months ago, an angry defendant made threatening comments to McDowell in the middle of court proceedings, he said.

"Deputies were right there beside him, I felt safe," McDowell said.

"I never really had a situation where I felt my life or safety was in danger," McDowell said.

When judges do receive threats, they immediately contact Hafer, McDowell said.

He assigns an investigator to look into each threat, and contacts the state's attorney's office if the threat is serious, Hafer said.

Recent investigations have not been difficult because people writing threatening letters included their return addresses on the envelope, Hafer said.

Many of the people who write threatening letters are incarcerated, which eases concerns about the writers actually acting on the threats, Hafer said.

The Sheriff's Department hasn't assigned a bodyguard to a judge since 1989, Hafer said. In December 1989, former Circuit Judge John P. Corderman was seriously injured by a blast from a mail bomb.

The blast that injured Corderman sparked increased security measures, including the installation of metal detectors, at court buildings in Washington County.

Threatening to injure, kidnap or kill a state official is a crime, and conviction on that charge can carry a prison sentence of three years, according to Maryland state code.

To beef up security already in place, X-ray machines and an armed deputy will be added to the courthouse entrance, Mullendore said.

On Thursday, the Washington Street entrance was closed because the ramp was taken down. The Summit Avenue entrance had to be opened so that the courthouse was handicapped-accessible, Mullendore said.

He didn't want both entrances open because "it's easier for us to control one entrance at a time instead of two," he said.

Mullendore said he expects the front door facing Washington Street to be closed permanently.

Officials plan to install electronic locks on that door, Rohrer said. The locks would be released in the event of fire or an emergency, he said.

The size and weight of the doors has made tracking down the right equipment difficult, but the county is working with an architect and security team on that project, he said.

Plans for an elevator to transports prisoner have resulted in an additional $750,000 in courthouse construction costs, Rohrer said. The elevator should be ready for use within a year, he said.

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