Twenty-four years ago a woman brought a gun and bolt cutters in a bag into a Lancaster County District courtroom, which she passed on to her boyfriend, who had been brought from jail.

The man escaped but was captured by sheriff's deputies behind the building after he shot himself in the foot.

That incident provided the impetus for the court's current security system, where people entering the Hall of Justice pass through a system much like airport security.

But local security experts say the security checkpoint in operation since 1999 needs upgrading.

The current system is unsafe, inefficient, too small, with no ability to grow as the number of visitors to the building increases, said Capt. Jerry Witte, with the sheriff's office.

Every day, security staff handle drunk and rowdy people and arrest someone, usually on outstanding warrants, in this very small area, Witte told county and city elected leaders at a recent meeting.

Around 30,000 people pass through the checkpoint each month and staff collect 275 to 300 articles of contraband a month, generally knives, he said. 

The security entrance should be set up in a straight line, like you see at airport security, not the curving line used at the Hall of Justice, which poses its own security problems, said Witte.

And the current system has no specific space available to separate potential problem people from others in the security line, he said.

Witte outlined several options to county and city elected leaders, ranging from simply expanding the current security area inside the building to adding space in a new separate building.

The best option would be a new entrance to the Hall of Justice, the middle of three limestone government buildings on 10th Street, Witte said.

The security entrance serves only visitors to the building that houses the courts and police and sheriff's offices. The other two buildings, which house government offices and the offices for elected officials, have no secured entrance.

A new security checkpoint could serve the Hall of Justice only, or it could act as a security entrance for all three government buildings, Witte said.

The new building would likely extend out to the base of the Abraham Lincoln statue, Witte said.

It would be limestone and glass to match the current buildings, and the architects are cognizant of its location and will design it tastefully, he said. 

The walk areas from the checkpoint to the other buildings could be glass enclosed, or the entire campus could be surrounded by a fence, Witte said.

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County-City Building security

Initial cost estimates range from $500,000 to simply enlarge the current security area inside the building to $2.5 million to add a security entrance outside the Hall of Justice and use it for security for all three buildings.

A decision about the security entrance will be made by the Public Building Commission, made up of representatives from both the City Council and County Board, but Witte expects county commissioners, council members and the mayor to weigh in on the question before the commission makes a decision.

Many employees at the three buildings want better security, favoring entrance security that will keep weapons out of all their work areas, according to Witte.

Witte said he receives regular requests for additional security for special meetings or events.

The County-City Building, where elected officials have offices, has additional security during office hours, provided by the sheriff's department.

The City Council always has a police officer monitoring its weekly meetings.

Witte believes it is more efficient to have a security entrance so people cannot bring weapons into any of the buildings, rather than have deputies guarding specific areas or specific meetings.

A checkpoint is an engineering solution that allows better security without adding employees, he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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