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Sheriff reverses courthouse weapons policy

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said his officers feel safe inside the county courthouse again, for the first time in nearly four years.

Sheriff Kem Kimbrough notified deputies and other sheriff's office employees last Friday he was reversing a policy put into place by his predecessor, Victor Hill, which required police officers to give up their weapons when they were in the courthouse.

Hill's policy applied to officers from the county's police force, and the six city police departments in the county.

In addition to their guns, police officers had to relieve themselves of a variety of weapons, including TASERS and pepper spray.

"Because of their uniforms, officers are marked targets," Turner said. "In the past, they did have concerns about their safety, because whenever they were at the courthouse, they were mixed in with people they had previously arrested."

The issue of armed officers in courts has been heightened by nationwide shooting incidents at courthouses, including one in Atlanta.

Kimbrough's new policy permits local, uniformed law enforcement officers to carry their department-approved weapons into the courthouse, but federal agents must obtain prior permission from Kimbrough, sheriff's office spokesperson, Sgt. Sonja Sanchez, said.

Undercover officers and deputies, as well as investigators for the district attorney and solicitor general, are asked to have their identification ready to show deputies when they arrive at the courthouse.

Kimbrough declined a Clayton News Daily request to explain why he changed the policy, Sanchez said.

The policy change will boost security at the courthouse, because there will be more armed, law enforcement officials in the building, in case an active-shooter situation occurred, Sanchez said. Previously, only deputies were allowed to carry weapons in the courthouse.

"If there had been a shooter in the [Clayton] courthouse in the past, the officers would have been as defenseless as the civilians," said Turner. "They would have had to take cover just like everyone else, instead of doing what they are trained to do, which is to go after the shooter."

Hill lost his re-election bid to Kimbrough in August 2008 in the Democratic Party run-off election. Kimbrough then defeated Republican Jack Rainwater in November, and took office on Jan. 1.