SHERIDAN — Municipal, circuit and district courts in Sheridan share space with offices to pick up marriage licenses, renew passports and purchase license plates. Because of the many uses, court safety looks different than a building specifically built to host violators of the law, and legislators are looking to identify vulnerabilities in statewide courtrooms across the state.
Last week, Wyoming’s joint judiciary committee met to discuss issues within the state’s judicial system. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, was dissatisfied with the lack of presentation done during the meeting.
“It consisted solely of a request by the court system to enact a bill to require sheriffs to pay for and maintain security cameras in all courts,” Kinskey said.
He inquired about current vulnerabilities, which presenters responded with pending results from a report prepared by the court security commission.
Steve Matheson, a longtime law enforcement officer in Sheridan County and current sheriff’s deputy of court, said the state and Sheridan County commission on court safety make slight improvements each year. The local commission, made up of Judges John Fenn and Shelley Cundiff, Sheriff Allen Thompson, Sheridan County administrative director Renee Obermueller and Matheson, meets at least once annually to discuss security improvement options with the limited funding available through the slender county budget. Matheson said the commission aims to “harden up” security from the inside out.
A recent addition included bulletproof walls and glass to help protect government workers from any potential predators.
Matheson manages the 74,000-square-foot courthouse building and juvenile justice center. Matheson manages alone and finds himself covering “three-court Thursdays,” when circuit and two district courts are running, with the help of technology and detention officers going to and from the courtrooms.
District court sees the most serious offenses in the county, so Matheson jumps between Judge Fenn and Judge William Edelman on the third floor of the courthouse addition. While in one court, he checks video surveillance of the other two courts and the inmate holding room on a portable tablet. Matheson said he’s typically aware of the nature of the case and the offender before anyone arrives at court, so he knows when he needs to be present in the courtroom. Emotionally-charged offenses or high-profile offenders receive his presence in the courtroom, and sometimes require detention officers to also sit or stand on guard in the courtroom as well.
Matheson’s biggest struggle beyond three-court Thursdays is the several points of entry throughout the building. The courthouse was built with accessibility as a priority over security, so while in his office he views cameras scattered throughout the building to check for abnormal behavior of those within the building.
Panic buttons are also available for government workers to page Matheson if a situation occurs, and he can respond almost immediately to a situation if needed.
Kinskey said municipal court remains especially vulnerable, as municipal court hearings now take place in Sheridan City Council chambers on the third floor of City Hall as opposed to the police station where hearings were previously held. Sgt. Dan Keller with the Sheridan Police Department assigns one of the on-duty patrol officers to serve as bailiff each Monday during court proceedings.
Keller said he has little concern for the safety of municipal court, as they have not had any issues and most proceedings are minor traffic offenses.
Sometimes municipal court will feature a public intoxication charge, but Keller said the offenders are not taken to court while inebriated and therefore pose less of a threat.
Municipal court had a full-time bailiff at one point but absorbed the position into on-shift patrol duties six years ago in an effort to be more efficient.
As legislators discuss funding issues at the state level, Matheson and the local commission will continue making slow improvements to the courthouse buildings not built for ultimate security.