Sheriff allows police to keep guns in court

By Ed Brock

There are going to be more guns in Clayton County's courthouse.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill has implemented a policy that will allow uniformed police officers to keep their guns when they come to the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro. The decision follows, but is not necessarily caused by, the recent shootings at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta that occurred on March 11.

In that incident, Brian Nichols, 33, is charged with shooting and killing a judge, his court reporter and a deputy during his escape from the courthouse and later killing a federal agent. He turned himself in later on.

Police say that Nichols overpowered a single female deputy who was escorting him into a holding cell and used her keys to remove her gun from a nearby lock box. That gun is believed to be the one used in the killings.

Shortly after that incident, Hill said that he had already planned to change the pre-existing policy of requiring all police officers visiting the courthouse to check their weapons with deputies. Hill said he wanted the police officers to be armed, so they could help stop an armed suspect in the courthouse.

"I fail to see where disarming our police officers adds to security," Hill said. "If anything, it takes away from security."

Hill said he didn't think the new policy, by increasing the number of weapons in the courthouse, would then increase the likelihood of a person acquiring a gun from an officer as happened in the Fulton County incident.

"If we're going to take guns away from officers in the courtroom we may as well take them away on the street," Hill said. "Someone could take them from them when they go on a call."

At least two other local law enforcement officers agreed with Hill's decision.

"We think that is a positive move on his part," said Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner. "We are professionals. We are taught gun retention techniques."

Turner said all officers in his department are equipped with special holsters that make it harder for somebody to take them from the officer.

Forest Park Police Capt. Chris Matson also said the new policy would increase security at the courthouse. Some time ago, a suspect tried to take a gun from one of his department's officers.

"They were not successful," Matson said.

Hill said only officers in uniform will be allowed to keep their guns in order to prevent any confusion or misunderstandings.

Even before the Fulton County incident, Hill had made some changes at the relatively new courthouse on Tara Boulevard. Attorneys who were previously given passes that allowed them to pass through security checkpoints without having their bags and pockets checked are now required to follow the same procedures as other people coming into the courthouse.

And now Hill is having his personnel perform a threat-analysis and hopes to bring in the U.S. Marshals to perform their own analysis.

"Two opinions are better than one," Hill said.

Hill acknowledged that everything that occurs at the sheriff's office is his responsibility, but added that he can sympathize with Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman. Hill said he inherited some problems from his predecessor just as Freeman inherited many problems from his predecessor.

"That's not the kind of thing that gets fixed when you walk in the door," Hill said.