Georgia Senate Committee Looks at Courthouse Security in Rural Counties

MOULTRIE, Ga. -- The Fulton County courthouse shootings raised concerns across the state about potential security problems at other state and county buildings.

But for many rural counties, a limiting factor could be the amount county commissioners and taxpayers are willing to pay for video surveillance gear, metal detectors and for the deputies who would have to operate the equipment.

That was the consensus Tuesday of about 20 south Georgia sheriffs and others who attended a hearing of a state Senate panel considering the security of state and county buildings.

''We live in an age where security has to be the focus,'' said Sen. Joseph Carter, a Tifton Republican who chairs the Senate Security for State and County Buildings Study Committee.

The panel will hold another hearing in middle Georgia, possibly Macon, and another in north Georgia, to determine if any assistance is needed from the state, according to Carter.

The sheriffs said many rural Georgia courthouses are old and have multiple entrances that make them difficult to secure.

Edward Morrison III, a security inspector with the U.S. Marshals Service, said he has visited some Georgia courthouses that were not even locked at night and judges couldn't lock the doors to their chambers.

Morrison, who is responsible for the security of five federal courthouses and assists sheriffs in a 70-county federal court district stretching from Athens to Thomasville, said the Atlanta courthouse shootings have heightened concern about the security of public buildings.

In the March 11 shooting spree at the Fulton County Courthouse, a rape suspect grabbed a guard's gun and fatally shot a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent before being captured.

''Everybody is concerned,'' Morrison said. ''Everybody is trying to get as much information (on security) as possible.''

Thomas Smith, president of the Georgia Sheriff's Association, said the state could help counties by allocating some of its federal Homeland Security funds for building security.

''It boils down to money,'' said Smith, the sheriff in Washington County. ''We can have all the equipment and resources, but we've got to have people to operate it and the people are going to have to be paid by the county.''

''Homeland Security is not only for terrorists,'' he said. ''It's also for the safety of people from illegal acts. There's not much difference between a terrorist and someone who takes over a courthouse and kills somebody.''

Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, said the hearings will give the seven-member committee an understanding of the concerns and needs in the state.

''We're here to listen,'' he said. ''There's different courthouses and different needs.''