Unlike newer courthouses, Swain’s doesn’t have a metal detector at the entrance. Instead the metal detector straddles the door to the main courtroom, ensuring weapons don’t make it into the courtroom itself but doing nothing to keep them out of the rest of the building or the lobby.
“It is really not designed for the modern security measures,” County Manager Kevin King said.
Swain County’s courthouse and administration building was built in the 1970s. It is easy to get lost in the oddly configured building, which sports several doors and halls radiating out from a central rotunda.
Courthouse shootings most often occur in emotionally charged cases like child custody, divorce hearings or domestic violence restraining orders. Court brings the two parties into close quarters, and can be particularly risky for women threatened by violent, estranged partners.
“We’ve actually seen people walk into the administration building with a gun on their side, and nobody knew if they were a police officer,” said Kevin Seagel, head of the county’s safety committee, during a presentation to the Swain County Board of Commissioners.
When Seagel spoke to the commissioners, he recommended that the county move its metal detector to the front door of the administration building and install security cameras, which a security guard would monitor. He also suggested adding a door to block off the probation offices in the building. Currently, anyone can walk into the probation offices.
“The reason for that is that nobody really needs to be back in the probation office” without a parole officer present, Seagel said.
The only thing that seems to be standing in the way is money. Security cameras, a new door and moving the metal detector, which would need to be recalibrated, would likely cost more than $55,000 during the first year and an additional $35,000 each subsequent year for a security guard to monitor the goings-on in the courthouse, King said.
Despite the cost, commissioners seemed eager to get the changes rolling to help keep people safe.
“I think we need to get moving on it pretty quick,” said Commissioner David Monteith during the meeting last month.
Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed, saying that although Swain is a small, rural county, security threats, like a shooter, can happen anywhere.
“It happens everywhere,” Dixon said during the meeting. “Oh yes, it can happen right here.”