A call for safety in Riverhead Town Justice Court

09/05/2014 8:00 AM |
Tight quarters heading into and out of Riverhead Town Justice Court makes Police Chief David Hegermiller and Town Supervisor Sean Walter believe that arming court officers with guns would not be safe. Others think it would make the court safer. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Tight quarters heading into and out of Riverhead Town Justice Court makes Police Chief David Hegermiller and Town Supervisor Sean Walter believe that arming court officers with guns would not be safe. Others think it would make the court safer. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Riverhead Town’s Justice Court isn’t as safe as it should be, elected town officials say.

They maintain that the hallways in the Howell Avenue building — which also serves as police department headquarters — aren’t wide enough and that the courtroom is too close to the building’s entrance.

“It’s very tight up there,” said Police Chief David Hegermiller. “It’s very confined quarters. It’s very makeshift.” 

But one issue that could easily be fixed, according to a town justice, court officers and a local prosecutor, is equipping part-time court officers charged with guarding the courtroom with firearms.

The decision not to arm the officers stationed near the entrance of the court — a practice carried out in nearby county courts as well as justice courts in East Hampton, Southampton and Southold towns — puts officers’ lives in danger, said Justice Allen Smith.

“The risk is, if you pardon the poor expression, that they’re going to be outgunned,” Justice Smith said. “Somebody can get up as far as the magnetometer, which is 25 yards from the courtroom, without risking being detected.”

Assistant district attorney Tim McNulty agreed, saying the town’s court security is woefully below par.

“The security here? Doesn’t exist,” he said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter agreed that court security is an issue inside the cramped building. However, he and Chief Hegermiller say arming officers with guns is not the solution. Currently, the officers are armed with mace and a police baton.

“Court officers have their [bulletproof] vests; they’re inside the police department; you’ve got police department members in the department; you’ve got a police officer in the court itself,” Mr. Walter said. “So I think there’s plenty of guns in there.”

Mr. Walter said he plans to address many of the safety concerns once the courts are relocated, ideally through a proposal to use the old Armory building on Route 58. But that proposal has an estimated $13 million price tag and hasn’t made any headway with a majority of Town Board members.

For now, the decision whether or not to arm officers falls to Chief Hegermiller, who oversees court officers.

The chief said court officers are required to take firearms training as peace officers but doesn’t think arming them would make the court any safer.

“You have a very narrow area, and introducing a weapon into that area is not safe for anybody,” he said. “You’re on top of each other and the weapons are right there.”

The chief said the armed officer at the front desk of the police department building — an area separated by a wall with a series of bulletproof windows — is also tasked with monitoring the entrance area and could respond “immediately” to any threat.

Mr. Walter said other courts separate court officers from the public using ropes or other barriers, providing a level of security Riverhead’s facilities don’t offer. 

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