A call for safety in Riverhead Town Justice Court

Riverhead officers do have a series of stanchions that separate them from those entering the courts, but in order to exit the building, people have to walk behind the other side of the stanchions, directly next to where officers stand.

“The problem you have right now is that [building] is not designed for screening,” the supervisor said. “So if you arm your court officers and somebody walks by really close while you’re patting somebody down, how are you going to stop them from taking your gun? You’re not. You’re never going to stop them.”

Town Justice Richard Ehlers said that he would also support having court officers armed, so long as they were properly trained. As peace officers, the part-time court officers already receive firearms training, though they are not allowed to carry a weapon.

Justice Ehlers said that while arming court officers would help, the “obvious solution” to the security woes at the court would be to move the courts to a new building better suited to handle people, police and defendants coming in and out.

“There’s the public traffic flow, there’s the prisoner traffic flow, there’s the clerk and court personnel traffic flow,” he said. “And each of those flows have to be regulated through the design of the building so that they don’t cross and so that you have points of security. This building just doesn’t lend itself to that.”

An armed police officer is now serving as a full-time court officer inside the Justice Court itself. But Justice Smith said a court officer must also serve as bailiff and is often preoccupied with calling out court cases and doing paperwork while court is in session.

“The only armed officer in the room is doing clerk’s work,” Justice Smith said. “He’s pulling files for Mr. McNulty, he’s pulling files for the defense counsel … really, what he should be doing is security.”

“There’s no way his attention is just on what’s going on,” Mr. McNulty added. “It can’t be. There’s too much going on.”

Justice Smith said there have been past instances when unruly prisoners put court officers in danger, including one incident where a prisoner grabbed and began swinging the small plastic table used by the court officers near the screening device.

Justice Smith said arming officers would serve as a deterrent.

“You go over to county court where the officers are armed and people just don’t test them,” Justice Smith said. “Somebody could test these [court officers] and basically they’d win the test.”

Justice Smith said he’ll continue to fight for a safe Justice Court, whether it’s by arming court officers or moving to a new facility, which the chief said would “solve a lot of problems.” Until that move happens, both Chief Hegermiller and Mr. Walter said arming officers is out of the question.

How the town would pay for the relocation, and whether the Town Board can agree to fund the idea in the wake of a $4 million general fund budget shortfall, remains to be seen.

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