Anyone who has ever been inside the Nodaway County Courthouse knows that it's just about as public as a public building can get. Security, to say the least, is minimal.
If you want to see a judge or the prosecuting attorney, it's usually just a matter of talking to a secretary and being ushered into an office. If you need to look at some records, you need only walk up to the clerk's service desk and ask.
And if you're there for a court date up on the second floor, you generally just walk into the courtroom and sit down. There may be a bailiff or two on hand, but odds are long that you'll be asked to walk through the metal detector, which is seldom turned on, and purses and briefcases are almost never searched.
It's not that Nodaway County is especially lax when it comes to courthouse security. It's just that the courts belong to the people, and in rural Missouri the people are accustomed to going where they want to go and seeing whomever they need to see inside institutions financed by their tax dollars.
But the days of "just dropping by the courthouse" may be numbered in the wake of the dramatic June 29 courtroom suicide of Steve Parsons, who swallowed cyanide moments after being found guilty of statutory sodomy.
Courthouses, after all, are often filled with people who have a history of violent, angry, destructive behavior, and in big cities controlled entrances, armed guards, metal detectors, bag searches and pat downs have long been the rule rather than the exception.
Look for at least some of those things to become standard procedure here in the not-too-distant future.
On Friday, the Nodaway County Commission met with presiding Circuit Judge Roger Prokes, associate Circuit Judge Glen Dietrich, Sheriff Darren White and other officials to evaluate what ought to be done to tighten security at both the courthouse and the County Administration Center across the street.
Prokes asked for the meeting in response to an email from Dietrich, who pointed out that Parsons could probably have smuggled a gun into the courtroom as easily as cyanide.
By his own admission, Prokes has never placed courthouse security very high on his list of priorities, but he now believes the time has come to "put together some type of plan."
Responsibility for writing that plan has fallen to Sheriff Darren White, who has definite views on the issue that, if adopted, would radically alter the way people enter both buildings.
In a perfect world, White said, the courthouse and Administration Center would each have security cameras and a single entry point equipped with a staffed metal detector. All bags and brief cases would be searched, and those entering would be required to empty their pockets. Cell phones − which can be used to surreptitiously take photos of witnesses and jurors − and non-essential medications simply wouldn't be allowed.
Page 2 of 2 - What's more the checkpoints would operate on a daily basis.
"Security part-time is useless," White said. "If you don't do it full-time there is no point in doing it at all. And the courthouse is only one aspect of security. Really, the risk is probably greater at the Administration Center."
Though the perception may be that life inside the courthouse and Administration Center is most often routine, that is not necessarily the case. Staff at both buildings have access to radio-controlled "panic buttons" that send pre-recorded calls for assistance to police cars and dispatch offices, and they use them with some frequency.
The assessor's and collector's offices are particular hot spots. No one, after all, likes paying taxes, and some people get downright angry about it.
"I wouldn't say we're called on a daily basis," White said, "but it's certainly on a regular basis.
Of course, beefing up security is one thing. Paying for it is something else, a reality that Prokes recognizes.
"The question is what is the best security we can afford to have," he said.
North District Commissioner Robert Westfall commented that one answer may lie in everyone doing a lot of little things right. He said that officeholders could enhance their personal security by changing up their daily routines, parking their cars in different locations and staying away from the office when no one else is there.
As for checkpoints, or at least limited access, the courthouse has two entrances, east and west, and if one is closed it will likely be the west door, which is not handicap accessible.
The Administration Center has three entrances on three levels, none of which are normally locked during regular business hours. Unlike the courthouse, where touchpad locks and other measures block off some sensitive areas, access is nearly universal.
In White's view, rural public schools that lock all doors and control access with an intercom now have better security than either building.
"If you look at where these incidents occur, it's not in places like New York and Chicago," he said. "They're happening in places like Nodaway County. We've got to wake up."