Riverhead’s court officers do not carry a firearm. The judges who serve the court believe that should change. (Credit: Paul Squire)
The men and women brought into Riverhead Town Justice Court throughout the year stand accused of a wide array of crimes.
While some are being arraigned on non-violent charges, others have allegedly robbed, killed, beaten and raped people — and often they’ve reportedly committed these types of crimes on more than one occasion.
Yet, unlike most towns, the exterior of the courtroom they enter is secured by court officers who do not carry guns.
So while the accused criminals are escorted into the court by armed police officers, those who meet them there — sometimes family members, other times associates or potential adversaries — are greeted by unarmed court officers.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Police Chief David Hegermiller say the cramped hallways leading into the courtroom are not conducive to arming officers. Justices Allen Smith and Richard Ehlers and assistant district attorney Tim McNulty disagree.
On this issue, we tend to side with the judges and prosecutor, who spend more time in the courtroom and are more in touch with its needs.
The argument that the corridor where guests of the court are screened is too narrow and could lead to situations in which officers have their guns removed from them is too simplistic. These are trained peace officers who already receive firearms training and, like police officers, should be trusted never to lose possession of their gun in a dangerous situation. As long as they continue to receive proper training — and additional training where necessary — this should never be an issue.
What’s perhaps most telling in this week’s cover story about the debate over arming court officers is Mr. Walter’s statement that he plans to address safety issues in the court by relocating it to the former armory building on Route 58. While Mr. Walter desperately wants to see the relocation happen, we’re not sure he has the votes to deliver. We don’t believe a transfer is any reason not to arm court officers now — unless, of course, the supervisor believes making small adjustments to improve court safety now will cost him the political capital he’ll need to get the courts relocated later.
We believe anything that can be done to make the courts safer today is in the best interest of the public Mr. Walter is elected to represent.