Security force keeps watchful eye on Hgtn. County Courthouse

Officers Mel Hunnicutt (left) Rod Jackson help guarantee the security of the thousands of people who visit the Huntington County Courthouse each month, as well as those who work inside the building.
Officers Mel Hunnicutt (left) Rod Jackson help guarantee the security of the thousands of people who visit the Huntington County Courthouse each month, as well as those who work inside the building. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Oct. 5, 2017.

Why do people visit the Huntington County Courthouse?

Some have business there; some just want to take a look at the ornate architecture.

But the biggest draw, by far, is paying taxes and voting.

“October, November, April and May are the busiest months of the year because of taxes and, normally, elections,” says Officer Rod Jackson, who heads up security at the courthouse.

The security officers — there are two on duty at all times — keep a count of courthouse visitors while they keep an eye out for items that could be used to cause problems inside the building.

The number of visitors per month outside the taxes and voting months  ranges from around 4,000 to close to 6,000.

In an election year, people from throughout Huntington County visit the courthouse to cast their ballots — both early and on Election Day — for the spring primaries and the fall general election, creating a spike in numbers in April, May, October and November.

Property taxes are due each year in May and November, and Jackson says the line outside the county treasurer’s office — made up of people who want to pay their taxes in person — sometimes winds around the rotunda.

The highest numbers of visitors since the security station was instituted in August of 2013 were recorded in four months of 2016 when polling places were open in the courthouse, Jackson’s numbers show.

It was the year of a presidential election, and 7,893 people visited in April, 8,983 in May, 8,644 in October and 8,226 in November.

During the previous year, when there was no presidential race on the ballot, 6,274 people visited the courthouse in April, 7,479 in May, 6,147 in October and 6,183 in November.

The off-year in the election cycle was 2013, with no elections held that year and 5,904 people visiting the courthouse in October and 6,712 in November. The spike in those years was made up mainly of people paying property taxes in person, Jackson notes.

While the visitor count provides some interesting numbers, it’s not the main reason the security officers man the Jefferson Street door of the courthouse.

Equipped with a walk-through metal detector and an X-ray machine for bags and purses, the officers are on the lookout for anything that could be used to create havoc or cause harm inside the courthouse.

“Everybody who enters the building goes through security,” Jackson says.

The officers are looking for banned items, including  firearms and anything that could be used as a weapon.

“They are taken at the entry point, and they (their owners) get a tag to reclaim them,” Jackson says.

Sometimes, the items that set off an alarm are normal, everyday objects.

“Being a farming community, we get a lot of individuals carrying pocket knives,” Jackson says.

He says he sees three or four pocket knives a day; they’re locked up, then returned once the visitor completes his business.

Someone walking through the metal detector could set off alarms because of metal in their shoes, belt buckles, jewelry, hip or knee implants, Jackson notes. The walk-through detector indicates the general area of the metal, and the officer confirms that with a hand-held metal detector.

The X-ray machine shows a picture of metal items detected inside a bag or purse. If it sees a gun, the bag or purse is automatically locked inside the machine.

“It’s all automatic, but it still takes humans to handle it,” Jackson says. “We’re trained to watch for certain things. That’s why we’re here.”

The newest contraband item is a credit card knife — hard plastic the size of a credit card, which can be folded open to reveal a sharp blade.

Those started showing up in 2015, and the officers are finding one or two — and sometimes five or six — a month.

The officers have also taken scissors, mace and even handcuff keys carried into the courthouse to be slipped to prisoners.

One person brought in a camping ax; someone else was carrying an ice pick.

Jackson says courthouse visitors take the security setup in stride.

“I think most people are accustomed to the procedures,” he says. “It took about a month for people to get used to it.”

The biggest issue, he says, is balancing security with public relations.
“We want to make sure people coming to the courthouse feel welcome,” he says.

Using retired or fulltime local law enforcement officers is a big help, he says.

“Our guys are very friendly,” he says. “We treat people with respect … We’ve dealt with these people all of our lives. We know these people.”