Palm Beach County Courthouses Called Safe, Despite Security Breaches

Jul. 10--Palm Beach County officials and local law-enforcement have concerns about recent security failures at two courthouses, but the private security firm hired to protect county buildings still is doing a satisfactory job overall, officials say.

During "integrity checks" on June 14, a plainclothes Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputy successfully entered courthouses in Delray Beach and Palm Beach Gardens with a 9mm handgun strapped to his body. Though metal detectors beeped when the deputy passed through, unarmed officers with Weiser Security allowed the deputy to enter the buildings even after using a wand to check him.

"They made assumptions that it was a belt buckle or a zipper, and that's what we have to change," said Sheriff's Capt. Frank DeMario, who runs the court services division.

The same day, the deputy also tried to enter a courthouse at the Sheriff's Office on Gun Club Road, but the pistol was discovered. The deputy hid the gun twice on his ankle and once in his waistband.

The Weiser guards who missed the gun were counseled and took refresher training, according to George Novaky, security manager for Palm Beach County. Despite the flub, Novaky said, Weiser has passed other random tests and unannounced screenings will continue. Security breaches are not made public and are handled internally.

"These are human beings, and human beings are fallible," Novaky said. "We are testing them to keep them alert, keep them aware."

New Orleans-based Weiser Security also provides security at county properties such as The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, libraries and Palm Beach International Airport. It conducts its own tests and, according to Leonard Kline, its chief operating officer, Weiser does far better than the national average of catching contraband. When something does make it past guards, they are disciplined, he said.

Weiser has 3,500 employees nationwide, with about 100 in Palm Beach County, according to Kline. More than 80 percent of the local employees have been with the company for more than a year.

Over the past six months, Weiser guards seized 40,000 items from people entering Palm Beach County courthouses and buildings. And that's just stuff people try and get through an X-ray machine.

"That's not counting what we've found in the bushes when we do perimeter checks," DeMario said. "We find knives, razors and six packs of beer."

Contraband runs the gamut, from drugs to knives, box cutters, razors and scissors. Guards have found firearms, but typically they belong to someone who has a permit and forgot to leave the weapon behind.

With the exception of judges and county deputies assigned to the courthouse, guards search everyone entering the building. Deputies also are posted at courthouse entrances to provide additional security.

The two-year, $6 million Weiser contract expires in October, Novaky said, and so far the county is satisfied with its services. When the contract was signed in 2004, starting pay for security guards ranged from $8.75 to $10 an hour, depending on the level of security clearance.

The highest-paid guards are licensed to carry a weapon, though only those stationed at the water utility, the State Attorney's Office and the Public Defender's Office do so, according to Mark Swanson, county chief security supervisor. Weiser's contract authorizes a 3 percent pay raise for its guards at each renewal.

On the federal level, more than 260 officers with the Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, handle security at Palm Beach International Airport. TSA won't reveal details of its random inspections, but spokesman Christopher White said officers regularly are tested and evaluated. There is covert testing by local TSA officials as well as by national TSA and the Department of Homeland Security.

A program known by the acronym TIPS -- Threat Image Protections Systems -- superimposes images of bombs, bomb parts, guns and other dangerous items as baggage passes through an X-ray machine. If screeners successfully identify the item, a message appears on the computer screen congratulating them for doing so. If they miss it, they are notified of that as well.

"Right now, explosives are the greatest threat to aviation," White said. "Improvised explosive devices and their components are regularly superimposed. It keeps our screeners sharp."

The TSA would not release information about specific security failures at the airport.

"We don't want our enemies to know if we have a specific issue with a specific bomb or whatever," White said.

At the Port of Palm Beach, officials also keep data about security procedures close to the vest. Other than saying "risk and vulnerability assessments" take place, security director Ken Hern declined to elaborate. Riviera Beach police, port security, the Sheriff's Office marine unit and contracted security guards protect the port. Federal law requires the U.S. Coast Guard be notified whenever there's a security breach, Hern said.

"The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducts annual reviews at the ports, and last year's report to the governor identified the Port of Palm Beach as one of the most secure seaports in Florida," Hern said.

With 256,000 containers passing through the Port of Palm Beach each year, it's the fourth busiest of Florida's 14 seaports, behind Miami, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville, according to Hern. Imports and exports from the port include oil, sugar and molasses.

"The only thing I've got breaching my security is a 3-month-old puppy I've been trying to catch for the past three days," Hern joked.

Missy Stoddard can be reached at mstoddard@sun-sentrinel.com or 561-228-5505.

<<South Florida Sun-Sentinel (KRT) -- 07/11/06>>

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