A day after a Meadville Tribune staffer with a 9 1/2 inch metal wrench was allowed to pass freely through the metal detector at the entrance of the Crawford County Courthouse, county officials took steps to address security problems they have been warned about weeks ago.
Crawford County Commissioner Chairman Morris Waid said the lapse Tuesday that allowed Tribune editor Pat Bywater to take the wrench through the metal detector took place because employees were not doing their jobs. Essentially, the metal detector workers were not doing anything to check people after the walk-through detector indicated they were carrying metal. The workers simply allowed people to enter the courthouse even though the detector indicated they were carrying metal. The detector is in place to ensure knives and guns are not brought into the courthouse.
As of Wednesday, the metal dectector workers, who are unarmed, were stopping and searching everyone the metal detector indicated was carrying metal.
The issue was first brought to the county commissioners Jan. 17 when West Mead Township resident Mike Easton complained that even though the detector indicated many courthouse visitors were carrying metal, the metal detector workers did nothing to search them. Commissioners’ only response to the complaint was to begin discussions with Crawford County Sheriff Nick Hoke about taking over responsibility for the metal detector operations. The metal detector and the workers who run it have always and remain to this day the direct responsibility of the commissioners.
Tribune reporter Jane Smith confirmed Easton’s claims with her own numerous observations between late January and this month.
Then the Tribune decided to test the system to see if an object with as much metal as a large knife or handgun could get through undetected.
As Bywater approached the metal detector Tuesday, he voluntarily removed from his pockets his cell phone and keys. He left the wrench in the outside left pocket of his winter coat. When he walked through the metal detector, an alarm beeped, but the man working at the detector said it was OK, and allowed him into the courthouse.
The Tribune reported the incident with Bywater to Crawford County Commissioner Chairman Morris Waid that same day.
Waid said Wednesday he asked Mark Peaster, administrative assistant to commissioners, to send a memo to the metal detector operators that they must follow the county’s security policy. That means that if the walk-through metal detector goes off, the person who triggers the alarm must be checked with a handheld metal detector to determine what metal items they are carrying before they are allowed into the courthouse. In addition, the metal detector workers must check all bags.
“We have a good policy,” said Waid, noting the policy requires everybody be checked. “They are not doing their job out there,” he said. He said after receiving the memo, if the metal detector workers don’t follow the policy, further action could be taken.
Even when the county’s policy is enforced, not everyone entering the courthouse is checked. Under the current policy, courthouse employees wearing their identification badges are allowed to bypass the metal detector. In addition, employees can use their badges as swipe cards to open other courthouse entrance doors that are kept locked. Those doors automatically relock once the employee enters.
Many other Pennsylvania counties use sheriff’s deputies to secure the courthouse entrance, and at least one Crawford County official — District Attorney Francis Schultz — favors this approach.
He described ease with which the Tribune was able to breach security as “disturbing.”
“A vast majority of the people coming here (to the courthouse) are not coming here under happy circumstances,” Schultz pointed out. He said that he is not sure what training they have received, but he believes the current metal detector workers are trying their best. Nonetheless, he said he has always felt that securing the courthouse entrance should be the responsibility of sworn law enforcement officers.
Waid defended the use of civilians for metal detector workers. “We thought it would be easier to have people who are not law enforcement,” he said. “We thought it would make it more congenial,” he said, noting he wanted to “make it more relaxing,” referring to visitors to the courthouse.
Nonetheless, commissioners and Sheriff Hoke have continued discussing the possibility of the sheriff’s office assuming control of security for the courthouse entrance.
“We are aware of deficiencies in the (current) system,” said Hoke. “I have not made any commitment at this time (about taking over the system). It is something we are working on. We want to do it right.”
While both officials agree there may be flaws in the system, both believe the courthouse is safe. “The courthouse is basically safe,” said Hoke. “I think it’s safe,” said Waid.
As one example, an incident several years ago was dealt with quickly by the one metal detector worker. A visitor made some reference about a bomb when stopped and the worker immediately shooed him away, telling him to “get the h*** out of here.” The man quickly left and was in his car before sheriff’s deputies arrived.
Other security measures have been put in place for silent alarms, when deemed necessary.
Metal detector workers have confiscated various items over the years, including gun ammunition, but no weapons.
Asked what other items they have confiscated, two metal detector workers — Mark Stellato and Robert Gibbs — refused comment Wednesday. They said they wanted to wait until all four workers could make a statement, noting the quartet is a team.
County commissioners adopted the current security setup after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States.
There have been no incidents of violence at the courthouse in recent memory.
The equipment, which includes an X-ray machine and conveyor belt, was installed in 2006 and allows operators to view what is inside a purse or briefcase, allowing quick identification of any potential weapons.
The equipment was purchased through a Homeland Security grant. The walk-through metal detectors cost $3,700 and the scanning equipment, $23,000.
The four metal detector workers are paid by the hour and receive no benefits. The budget for 2008 for all four positions is $38,725.
From 2002 through 2007, the county paid operators a total $186,246.21.
Jane Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Pat Bywater contributed to this report.