Alabama Courthouse to Receive Major Video Surveillance Upgrade

PELL CITY - If you're going to a St. Clair County courthouse to buy car tags, pay a fine or conduct other business, be ready to ''say cheese.'' One of the county's 51 new security cameras will have its eye on you.

The $64,000 system is one of the first steps in plans to make the courthouses safer for employees and the public.

CMI Electronics of Montgomery installed the system about a month ago.

The system includes 32 cameras in the Pell City courthouse, 10 in the Ashville courthouse and nine in the Ashville courthouse annex.

The cameras, inside globes mounted on ceilings and walls, work around-the-clock.

When they detect motion, they automatically record to a computer hard drive the images from the four seconds before the movement to the four seconds after the movement stops.

The cameras can be monitored from a security office in the Pell City courthouse and potentially from any computer on the county's fiber-optic network. But county officials haven't decided whose job it will be to monitor the cameras full-time, or whether anyone will do so.

''Our camera system never gets tired, so it can watch all the time, which is 99 percent of security's job,'' County Commission Chairman Stan Batemon said. ''Somehow we know we've got to marry the watching with people'' to respond to emergencies.

Because the cost of security personnel is high, Batemon said, the county has no immediate plans to hire more.

For several years, judges and others have called for tighter security at the St. Clair County courthouses. The courthouse shootings in Fulton County, Ga., in March intensified the discussions that had gone on for several years, Batemon said.

In addition to the new camera system, the county recently hired its second part-time courthouse security officer. The officers, who are former law enforcement officers but do not carry guns, generally work when court is in session. The Sheriff's Department also provides at least one deputy for each courtroom when court is in session, Batemon said.

The county has not begun regular use of metal detectors and X-ray machine checkpoints for those entering the courthouse, a key part of a new security plan supported by the county's judges.

Still, presiding Circuit Judge Charles Robinson said he's pleased with the new camera system and hopes the county will continue to upgrade security at the courthouses.

County Property Manager Harold Hoyle plans to buy a 42-inch monitor to mount on the wall in the Pell City courthouse security room to display larger images from the cameras. Hoyle wants the new system to be as visible as possible because its greatest value is as a deterrent.

''When people realize they're being monitored, they get on good behavior,'' Hoyle said. ''That probably takes away 90 percent of the problems you have.''

The camera system is linked with a new, wireless alarm button system, installed recently for $7,420. The buttons are placed in courtrooms and other county offices and send a radio message to law enforcement agencies to come immediately to where the button is pushed.