Courthouse facelift eliminating wrinkles in safety protocol

Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Mogridge scans Shaneka Turner as she enters the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse. According to a new plan to secure the courthouse that will be implemented in 2020, an officer will operate an X-ray machine, metal detector and bag scanner. The Church Street entrance will remain the main entrance for the public and courthouse employees. Photo by Hannah Richardson

By Carolyn Roy, News Editor

Natchitoches Parish will make great strides in providing courthouse security, that is nearly non-existent, because of a several major improvements that are in the planning stages. The architectural firm of Ashe, Broussard and Weinzettle of Alexandria and architect George Minturn of Natchitoches have spent about the last 18 months determining what is needed to secure the courthouse and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The architectural plans and specifications are projected to be ready for the public bid process by the end of 2019.

Parish President Rick Nowlin says the courthouse security improvements are a State Capital Outlay project in that the State is providing $830,000 and the Parish is providing $1,480,000, resulting in a total estimated cost of $2,310,000.

The Parish funds are coming from the existing Parish Government Buildings Fund that is supported by a property tax passed by the voters.  “It has taken years for the Parish to set aside the Parish funds necessary,” Nowlin said.

He listed the major features of the project.

•Sally Port: This is a secure facility for delivering detainees to the courthouse, including private parking for detention center vans and an enclosed parking area with gates controlled by the officers. The courthouse addition and Sally port will occupy a major portion of the parking lot on the northwest side of the building.

•Elevator: A new elevator will allow detainees to be brought into the courthouse without contact with courthouse staff or the public.

•Holding Cells: These are cells to temporarily house male, female and juvenile detainees awaiting courthouse appearances and will include private restrooms and an area for attorney consultation.

•New Courtroom No. 2 or small courtroom: This is an expanded second courtroom that will have a box for jurors.

•Hallways: These will allow detainees to be delivered to the holding cells and between the holding cells and the courtrooms without contact with courthouse staff or the public.

•The public entrance will still be on Church Street: A law enforcement officer will operate an X-ray machine, metal detector and bag scanner. That location will also be the main entrance for employees.

•HVAC: These systems will be expanded to handle the courthouse addition to replace some existing equipment that is over 50 years old.

•New ADA Parking:  Due to the improved security measures, the handicap access has been temporarily relocated from the basement door to the NPSO door on the west side of the building. To accommodate these citizens, the Parish has installed new handicap parking spaces on the Church Street side of the NPSO parking lot near the designated handicap access door.  The cost of the project is approximately $6,400 and the funds are from the Government Buildings Fund.

•ADA Ramp: The permanent solution to provide handicap access will be the construction of a ramp at the Church Street entrance.  The ramp will start at the edge of the NPSO parking lot where the new handicap parking has been installed and continue to the courthouse door. The project is currently released for public bids and the estimated cost is $135,000 and the funds are from the Government Buildings Fund.

•Parking Lot Improvements:  Due to the fact that the facility security improvements will result in a significant reduction in the number of parking spaces in the northwest lot behind the courthouse, the Parish will make improvements to the parking lot on the hill between Third and Fourth streets.  The improvements will include minor repairs to the parking surface, new sidewalks and additional lighting to create a safer condition for those attending functions in the courthouse in the evenings.

The cost of the project is estimated to be $100,000 and the funds are from the Government Buildings Fund. Since these parking improvements need to be completed before the Security Improvements work begins (project 1 above), the Parish has scheduled this project to be completed before the end of 2019.

“We are excited about the improvements being made to our courthouse.  They are long overdue and will provide a better and safer environment for all staff and those who must transact business in the courthouse, especially the 10th Judicial District Court, Office of the District Attorney and law enforcement personnel,” Nowlin said. Clerk of Court David Stamey knows the importance of the proposed improvements. “The courthouse security project will make a huge impact on the public and to citizens that are employed at the courthouse. Just the ADA ramp planned at the front entrance will be important for our handicapped citizens and for those citizens with limited mobility.

They will be able to safely reach the Sheriff’s, Clerk’s, Tax Assessor’s, Registrar of Voters, Parish Government’s and judges’ offices as well as the courtroom.” “We see terrible events daily on the news where tragedy has occurred at courthouses around the nation,” District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington said. “There is no way we should wait another day to do all we can to protect the public and courthouse employees from the sort of events that have occurred elsewhere because we don’t want that to come into our community.

The projects on the courthouse security list makes the building safer and more assessable for all that use the building.” Sheriff Victor Jones Jr. said that the improvements are needed as the Parish continues to grow. “Times have changed.  The security of our citizens has changed across our nation. The mission of this improvement is to provide a safe environment for our judges, district attorney, clerk of court, tax assessor, parish government, employees and all visitors coming into the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse,” Jones said.

“ It is our duty to deter any criminal activity or acts of violence against the court or visitors of the courthouse for the safety of our citizens. The Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office shall maintain the security of the courthouse in order to protect the integrity of court proceedings, protection of citizens attending public meetings, citizens obtaining legal documents and to ensure the rights of citizens entering court.”