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State chief: Courthouse needs to be safer

State chief: make building safe

Aug 29, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Like the dozen or so others at the Fremont County Commission meeting Tuesday, U.S. Marshal Joe Moore for Wyoming doesn't take the shooting incident at Riverton's Circuit Court facility lightly.

"A threat's been made to the basic constitutional government," Moore said about the bullet hole was discovered in late July.

"We in the federal system take that very seriously," he said.

Riverton police said someone fired a shot that hit the building's north wall and penetrated the exterior. Large metal containers continue to line the building's courtroom since the July 29 discovery.

Sheriff Skip Hornecker told commissioners Aug. 14 that investigators cannot determine if the shot was intentional.

"The concern I have is ... it really displays the lack of security at that building," he said.

Moore joined Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn S. Kite, Wyoming Homeland Security Director Guy Cameron and several others Tuesday to address concerns about security at the building.

"Obviously it's an urgent situation we all want to deal with as quickly as we can," Kite said.

The Wyoming Court Security Commission and the Board of Judicial Policy and Administration recently met to "talk about what we might do," she said.

"We have no ability or desire to tell you what to do," she said.

The hour-long discussion Tuesday provided commissioners with possible resources for resolving some of the issues.

"We wouldn't be doing our duty if we didn't bring all of the resources we can," Kite said.

She said the big solution to the facility's issues is a long way off.

"We've simply got to do something in the short-term to make this building safer," Kite said.

Immediate options

Possible quick fixes to the immediate concerns include installation of concrete walls around the building's exterior until perhaps a new Riverton justice center complex could gain funding with potential state help.

The issue raises a situation that is unique to Riverton in Wyoming. Kite said the Riverton building is the only court facility in Wyoming "that is penetrable by a firearm."

"We're very lucky that this was a handgun. A rifle could go through that building from the other side," she said.

Cameron agreed with the security worries surrounding the building. "It's very fortunate that court was not in session," he said.

"There is a serious safety concern in that current building," Cameron said.

Commission chairman Doug Thompson said the safety issues are nothing new for the building that a Teton County law official examined years ago for security concerns.

"I've been on the commission for 12 years and this has been a situation -- not to this magnitude," Thompson said.

A long-term resolution involves a heavy financial burden the county cannot support, he said. "Right now we're in declining revenue. ... Our capital construction has been down to a bare minimum," he said.

Even if the county had $10 million delivered tomorrow, "it's still not going to address this solution for a year or a year and a half," Thompson said about the time to construct a new building.

Noting the Lander courthouse could not handle the workload and traffic from the Riverton facility, Thompson added, "We're facing problems here that aren't readily solved, but we have to put our minds on how to do this."

He supported Cameron's recommendations for using federal money to help address the problem in the short-term.

"The idea of maybe using Homeland Security grants to fortify the exterior is probably an avenue we need to look at," he said.

Commissioners in past years have discussed security concerns with the building. Earlier this year their funding led to an extensive interior remodeling that added office space while addressing some security issues in the building.

Constructing a new justice center in Riverton that would house court, sheriff, prosecution and possibly other agencies remains an ongoing, multimillion-dollar target for the commission.

Agreeing with the proposal for concrete walls, Thompson said, "I think something like that is what we need but what I don't want to say ... is everything is fine" after their installation.

"It needs to have an adequate facility there and that's our goal," he said.

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said the county needs a price tag on the short-term security fixes.

"The bigger elephant in the room is the long-term consideration," Hickerson said. "Somehow we need to meld a formula together to somehow fund a justice center."

Cameron said Fremont County has federal Homeland Security funds the commission can decide how to spend. "You have the power to drive what the priorities are for Fremont County for matters of public safety," he said, noting the county has a balance of about $349,000.

Additionally, the state Homeland Security agency can perform a vulnerability study on the Riverton facility to provide other safety-enhancement recommendations, Cameron said.

"My recommendation would be we can assist through a vulnerability assessment through measures we can address today," he said.

Thompson agreed on making progress in the short-term. "That's what we need is an assessment on what we can do, how soon we can do it and what it's going to cost," he said.

With the concrete walls, "I think that looks like a solution we can get that would be affordable without draining the pool for a long-term solution," he said.

When asked whether he agrees with the proposals discussed to increase safety at the building, Riverton Circuit Judge Wesley A. Roberts said, "The short answer is absolutely."

"My priority is for a safe place to work" and for people visiting the building, Roberts said.

The group plans to continue to explore ways to fund a new justice center. "We don't want to go away. We don't want to leave you with this problem," Kite said.

She emphasized the need to gain legislative support for the project. "We can make a louder noise than if you go there by yourselves," she told commissioners.

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