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The other day I was in the library skimming through the Bangor Daily News and other newspapers when I came across the headline: "Screenings stress need for court security."
Dipping down into the story I learned that X-ray machines were used for the first time at the Penobscot County Courthouse earlier this month and managed to prevent nearly three dozen knives and a box cutter from being taken into the stately courthouse building. The story said the discovery underscored what officials have been claiming for a long time: there's a need for greater security and fewer sharp objects in Maine courthouses.
A high-tech X-ray machine - apparently idle since last fall - was put to use and after two days of X-raying the professional security screeners managed to remove 34 knives from the pockets and purses of courthouse-bound citizens. They also rounded up a pair of scissors, a box cutter and eight 'utility tools.' What's a utility tool? Who knows. But I guess you're supposed to leave them at home if you're planning a trip to court.
After two days of screening the security folks tallied up the results and found they had scanned and confiscated more than 700 items.
To the relief of officials no guns were found among the courthouse crowd coming through the screener. Some speculated it was because hunting season is over and also because downtown Bangor was never known as a good spot for game. Officials did say however that three people who may have been packing heat turned around once they saw the X-ray machine in place.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said the screening produced no surprises because what security personnel found he expected.
Ross said it's fairly common for people in Maine to carry around knives without any problems. But the concern is that pocket knives, scissors or other sharp objects could spell trouble inside the courthouses, where emotions and tensions get a tad raw and can rise quickly as life-altering decisions rendered.
“The potential is there for someone to lose control and do something terrible,” State Court Administrator Ted Glessner said. He also said, “unless people know they can't walk into a district or superior court with a weapon we can't say that court security efforts around the state are 'good enough.'”
Reading the story I was reminded of all the times years ago when I would go with my father or my grandfather up to the courthouse in Rockland to look over old deeds and maps. As a kid I always thought the courthouse was an odd place, an old and different place but I never considered it 'insecure' or dangerous. Maybe that is because we never had much business across the hall in the court rooms but stuck to the deeds and maps section of the building where the sharpest objects we saw were pens and most of them were sheathed in pocket-protectors that lined the breast pockets of the clerks who worked there.
As a kid I enjoyed going to the old courthouse and seeing all the people seated in squeaky old chairs at long, wide tables, slowly turning the large brittle pages of old books as they quietly looked and looked for I knew not what. Those must have been innocent times for courthouses because I never once had the idea that someone might jump out from behind a book and threaten me with a knife, a gun or a box cutter.
Ross said that X-ray machines are great for screening out weapons, but he said they can't contend with the situations that can and do arise at the courthouses. The courts are a melting pot of issues, from crimes to disputes, and court officers can detect the warning signs of a potential emotional or violent outbreak or prevent drugs from being passed to inmates or those facing jail time, he said. Those are things a machine couldn't do.
"There's no substitute for the experienced officer," Ross said.
I just wonder how long it will be before a security guard at the courthouse says, "Excuse me sir but you can't take those items in your pocket into the courtroom you'll have to leave them out here."
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John McDonald, Storyteller Central, P.O. Box 301, South Paris, ME 04281
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