Is courthouse campus safe?

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LOREN BENOIT/Press Security guard Ron Costa runs items through an x-ray machine for a District Court visitor Thursday afternoon in downtown Coeur d’Alene. Kootenai County officials are forming a committee to improve security measures at the courthouse campus.

COEUR d'ALENE — Kootenai County is taking safety at its courthouse campus to another level.

Elected officials and some department heads have agreed to form a committee to review procedures, personnel, training and equipment after recent threatening incidents.

"Every time we have an incident or exercise we find room for improvement," Sandy Von Behren, the county's Office of Emergency Management director, told county elected officials during a meeting last week. "We're just not getting it right, and we don't want tragedy to happen before we get this right."

The most recent incident occurred just last month, when a wanted Sandpoint man who allegedly flashed a gun at a driver earlier that day during a road-rage incident on Interstate 90 was arrested in the foyer of the old district courthouse along Garden Avenue. It prompted a lockdown on the campus and several law enforcement personnel to respond with their guns drawn. The man had gone to court to support his girlfriend.

"My notification came when he was walking across the street in handcuffs, so that's a problem," said Shawn Riley, the county's building and grounds director who helped write the county's emergency plan and intends to serve on the new committee.

Riley said he could think of three threatening situations on the county's downtown campus in the past five years, not including those inside courtrooms that are handled by bailiffs.

"Some of the people who do business here are under a lot of stress, going through a divorce or their loved ones are being sentenced," Riley said.

Riley said he believes the first emergency measure that needs to be reviewed, even before adding more cameras and security personnel, is communication.

"We have some employees walking around not knowing we are in lockdown," he said.

Steps that will likely be considered include installing sound systems in each of the buildings, and computer notifications.

There is a system in place called "KC Notify" that alerts subscribers on their cell phones of emergencies.

Officials said they legally can't force all their employees to be placed on the notification system, but steps can be taken to have more added by strongly encouraging it.

Riley said when the system was rolled out, some administrators believed only certain employees needed to subscribe.

"We need to make another pass to see if we can talk others into it," he said. "Part of the problem is that you have people coming and going constantly between multiple buildings. If there's an active shooting going on in one building, someone may not know that unless that building goes into lockdown."

Riley said the county performs evacuation and fire drills and has an emergency plan, but improvements need to be made, especially since shootings continue to rock the country.

County commissioners last year discussed adding more cameras on the courthouse campus, but that equipment didn't make the cut during the budget process. Riley believes such technology should be revisited.

The county also has electronic-locking doors and security personnel and screeners at some entrances.

Kootenai County Undersheriff Dan Mattos said emergency improvements must be simple so they're easily understandable by employees. But he also said it's critical that steps be made before time settles the dust on threatening situations.

"Everytime something happens we come back to the table and everyone gets charged up," he said. "Then it goes away. That's just human nature."

There was buy-in to form the committee from all the elected officials at Wednesday’s meeting.

Treasurer Steve Matheson said if the intent of the committee is to prevent an active shooter situation, that’s a high bar — but also a necessary one.

Sheriff Ben Wolfinger added: "You always plan for the worst and hope for the best."

Clerk Jim Brannon said it would be better to be active than reactive.

Some initiatives would need sorted out. When Brannon suggested metal detectors at more entrances to prevent guns in the buildings, Wolfinger reminded him that people can legally walk in with a gun.

"But at least we'd know if the person has an AR-15 (rifle)," Brannon said.

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