Plans for tighter security at provincial court still not implemented
Security scanning equipment stands idle — with the X-ray machine still in its packaging — in the middle of the hallway at provincial court in St. John’s. The new security perimeter screening system was supposed to be up and running by now, but it’s still awaiting government approval for specific regulations. — Photo by Rosie Gillingham/The Telegram
The signs have been up since early January.
“Public notice: Improved security to protect you. Your safety is our No. 1 concern.”
But more than a year after the provincial government announced plans to install a new security perimeter screening system at provincial court in St. John’s, it has yet to happen.
While renovations have been completed and equipment purchased, security scanning machines stand idle — some still in its protective packaging parked in the middle of main hallways.
It seems implementing the system has become as wrapped up in red tape as the X-ray scanners are swaddled in plastic.
“I’ll be honest with you, I thought we’d have this up and running long before this,” Justice Minister Felix Collins told The Telegram earlier this week.
But there’s more to installing a new security system than buying a few scanners, he pointed out, saying the delays have been the result of unforeseen obstacles.
Carrying out renovations and training sheriff’s officers take time, as do meetings with building inspectors, consultants, project managers, court staff, judiciary and other court administrators.
But the biggest holdup, Collins said, has been getting the green light from the government.
Collins said they are waiting on cabinet to pass a new set of regulations that would be part of the Court Security Act, which came into effect on Oct. 1, 2010.
These regulations would give sheriff’s officers and police officers authorization to conduct screening and personal searches in and around court.
Bill 24 states the regulations would:
• empower security officers as defined in the Bill to provide court security for the Court of Appeal, the Trial Division (General), the Trial Division (Family) and the provincial court of Newfoundland and Labrador;
• prohibit weapons and other prohibited items from being brought into a court area; and
• provide that a security officer may perform a frisk search in the course of screening and prescribe the manner in which it is to be performed.
Collins said all that’s needed is final approval from cabinet.
“The actual physical work of installing the equipment, that stuff you have control over, that’s all been done,” he said.
“But getting the legislation and regulation in place is more complicated. … That’s something that has a process of it’s own … and takes more time — longer than what we envisioned …”
The problem is, with the provincial election in full swing, the House of Assembly is not expected to sit anytime soon.
“I can’t prejudge when cabinet meets or when they’ll decide on it,” Collins said.
When asked if he expects the security measures to be in place this year, the minister said, “I don’t see why not.”
The need for improved security at provincial court has been recognized for years, but it finally gained momentum in 2009 after safety concerns were raised by staff and members of the public about the lack of a formal screening process outside the courts, some of which are located in a building with retail stores, banks and other business offices.
“It was a concern because of the layout of the court facilities. There was a free intermingling of (the) public and people being charged, their families, as well as victims and victims’ families,” Collins explained.
“We felt we had to act on it.”
Following a review, the government decided to install a new security perimeter.
Collins said a budget funding request for $250,000 was approved in March 2010, which included hiring three additional sheriff’s officers to operate the security equipment.
The addition of the two X-ray baggage scanners — at the request of sheriff’s officers — added $30,000 to the budget.
In a story published in The Telegram Jan. 15, provincial court Chief Judge Mark Pike explained the plan, saying that in the coming months the public would see significant changes in court security.
Members of the public would soon only be able to gain entry into provincial court on the fourth floor of Atlantic Place on Water Street by passing through metal detectors, he said.
And with the addition of X-ray scanners, all hand-carried items such as bags, briefcases and purses would be screened.
Where necessary, there will also be body screenings by hand-held metal detectors, as well as pat-downs.
Turnstiles will be used to control the flow of people coming into court. Access would be restricted to those who have electronic passes, including judges, lawyers and other court staff.
Collins said once the measures are in place, the public should expect to experience brief delays.
“Anytime you have to go through a screening process like this, it will be a slower process than people just walking in,” he said.
“But the delay will be worth it if it enhances security down there, which is the whole purpose of this.
“We’re looking forward to it being up and operational.”
Several changes and renovations have occurred in the past several months, involving modifications to the layout and design of the building.
“Atlantic Place is designed as retail office space. That, in itself, has inherent problems,” Collins said.
“We had to install to perimeter screening stations.”
Those stations will be located at two entry points — a new doorway leading to Courtroom No. 7 and through the existing entrance leading to the hallway to other courtrooms.
Renovations began in August 2010 and were scheduled to be completed by October 2010, but the work was not completed until March.
Collins said most of the work had to be done during the evening, when the courts were not in operation.
“That significantly delayed the renovations,” he acknowledged, adding: “There were a lot of changes in design needed to accommodate staff and put this into effect and that further delayed it.”
He contends the delays are a small price to pay for greater safety.
“It might be taking a bit of time, but it’s going to be worth it in the long run,” Collins said.
“I think everyone is going to be pretty happy with the system down there.”
Carol Furlong certainly hopes so.
Furlong — president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, the union that some court employees — including sheriff’s officers — expressed its concern about safety at court some time ago. While she’s happy the government has finally taken steps to implement a new security system, she hopes it won’t be delayed much longer.
“We’re pleased to see the equipment is in,” Furlong said.
“It would be a shame to have it sitting there and not readily used simply because we’re waiting on some bureaucratic approval.
“We need to get this up and running.”
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