The Christian County Justice Center annex will open in the spring of 2019 as planned, and court will be in session.
The judges and the sheriff’s deputies who will work in that building do not presently agree on how many security officers will be present when it happens.
Circuit Judges Laura Johnson and Jennifer Growcock met with the Christian County Commission and with Sheriff Brad Cole Nov. 16, to add to ongoing debates over staffing deputies for security in Christian County’s court buildings.
Johnson pulled a trump card, Article V of the Missouri Constitution. The law states that the presiding judge of a circuit holds “general administrative authority over all judicial personnel and court officials in the circuit,” including, she said, authority to determine adequate security staffing in rooms where court is held.
“I try to approach everything collaboratively, I try not to be a dictator. Having said that, I do have the authority in this situation to be a dictator, and I don’t want to do that, so I’m not going to issue any edicts or any orders, although I could,” Johnson said.
The statute, Johnson said, gives her and Christian County’s other judges full authority over the courts and, “full authority over the sheriff and the security provided to the courts.” Johnson said that there has been much discussion about whether or not the courtrooms in the Justice Center annex will open.
Construction crews intend to have the three-story, 34,000-square foot building in Ozark complete by March 1, 2019. The project carries a price tag of $11.1 million.
The justice center annex sits to the south of the existing Christian County Justice Center, and will have its main entrance at the corner of West Walnut Street and South First Street. It will eventually house Christian County’s prosecuting attorney’s offices and the juvenile office. It also has courtrooms for two circuit judges, a detention area for inmates awaiting court hearings and conference rooms to support the courtrooms.
In order to operate the courtrooms, Sheriff Cole referred to a personnel assessment that suggested Christian County would need a total of 39 courthouse security employees to operate six courtrooms in three buildings on its Justice Center campus.
Cole said that in April 2017, he told the county commission that the sheriff’s office would need 8-10 new employees to staff the Justice Center annex.
A staffing study, Cole said, was done according to standards set by the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit organization out of Williamsburg, Virginia, that functions as a think-tank and a consulting firm for court systems.
“The whole time we are being told that this is being built to the National Center for State Courts standards. That’s what we’ve operated off of the whole time,” Cole said.
Sheriff and judge disagree
The staffing report, Johnson said, makes false assumptions because it does not include the thoughts of any judges.
“This report was prepared without any input from us, with false assumptions, and without any consultation with other counties in similar situations about what they do and what they get by with,” Johnson said.
Johnson told the commission that judges were left out of the decision making process for the courthouse security requirements laid out in the report.
“I can’t imagine that any report on the security necessary for the new courts building could be complete without input from the judges,” Johnson said. “You simply have to know how we intend to operate our courtrooms and how we intend to see in the inmates.”
However, the sheriff said the judges did have input.
According to documentation in the staffing study, judges did attend a “Campus Security Workforce Planning meeting,” held in July 2017. The meeting also included sheriff’s deputies and one county commissioner.
“The purpose of the planning meeting was in order for the sheriff’s office to consult with the judges on the required resources and staffing issues. The staffing levels would require a significant increased[sic] to operate six courtrooms in three buildings on the county campus,” the report reads.
It was in that July meeting, Cole said, that the judges brought forth the concept of operating six courtrooms in three buildings simultaneously. From that recommendation, Cole said, the consultant drafted a plan for Christian County to employ 39 security officers.
Cole said he left the meeting Nov. 16, without much direction on how he should handle his office’s budget or staffing plans for 2019. Cole isn’t sure about what sort of security plan he should use.
“The last two and a half years, it’s been indicated to me that the commission is in charge of all the buildings and where security is going to be,” Cole said.
Presiding Commissioner Ray Weter, the only one of three commissioners who has been in office since the Justice Center annex construction project began, wants the judges and the sheriff to resolve any disagreement they may have before the building is finished.
“I will sleep a lot easier if I know, in addition to worrying about whether we’re getting fiber, telephone service and everything else over there, if I don’t have to worry whether the court and the sheriff are working together,” Weter said.
A new presiding commissioner
On Nov. 6, voters elected Phillips Christian County Presiding Commissioner. He will assume the role at the start of January 2019.
Weter, the outgoing presiding commissioner, said he does not intend to make a staffing decision or a budget decision that leaves Phillips searching for solutions on how to implement it.
“I’m not going to make decisions that handcuff Mr. Phillips,” Weter said.
Phillips said he wasn’t surprised by the meeting or that there is a funding shortage for staffing at the Justice Center annex. Phillips said he saw that coming before he became Eastern District Commissioner in January 2017.
The county government officially broke ground on the Justice Center annex in November 2017.
“I’m amazed that—I don’t know how this decision was made to build this building in the first place, just based on my experience in law enforcement, in the judiciary with logistics behind it. It scared the heck out of me,” Phillips said.
The scope of the project, Weter said, changed dramatically from its inception to its end.
“I think we’re looking at a system that has grown in complexity by far beyond what we thought we were going to be looking at. Complex systems require more staff,” Weter said.
Phillips said the responsible decision for him, personally, will be to approve the budget recommended by Christian County Auditor Amy Dent, the budget that will allow for an addition of three security officers.
“My obligation is to approve what the auditor tells me will keep us out of hot water,” Phillips said.
How the money is spent, Dent said, is up to each elected officeholder.
“My job is to tell people how much money they have to do their job, not how to do their job,” Dent said.
If it opens, there will be bailiffs
The sheriff said that if the two new courtrooms open in the spring of 2019, they will have security officers working in them.
“Whatever is decided is decided. We’ll do whatever has to be done. If I have to take 10 deputies off of patrol on the road to come operate this building, that’s what we’ll do,” Cole said.
Cole’s pledge to pull deputies off the roads and into the courtroom, he said, will impact Christian County’s crime rate.
“You’re going to have crime running rampant in the county because we don’t have people to answer calls for service. Our crime rate in the county right now, over the last two years, the last time I looked was down about 20 percent due to the proactivity and investigations division,” Cole said.
Life safety concerns, Cole said, can’t be ignored.
“I want to make it clear that the sheriff’s office will not be deliberately indifferent in any lawsuit that has do with the safety and security of any of the campus,” Cole said. “When that lawsuit is filed, we will be removed from that lawsuit because we have put this in place, it’s been reviewed by the National Center for State Courts.”
Law enforcement decisions, Judge Johnson said, aren’t governed by a judge.
“If a decision is made to take deputies off the road, that’s the sheriff’s discretion. That will not be due to the demands of court security, I can promise you that. If we get to that point, all the sheriff has to do is come talk to us about it, and we will do everything we can to prevent that from happening,” Johnson said.
Currently, Christian County operates the Justice Center and Historic Courthouse with 12 sheriff’s deputies and six additional security persons whose wages are funded through the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System (MULES). Christian County’s budget for 2019 would allow for the hiring of three additional deputies whose primary duties would be to provide courthouse security, bringing the total staff to 21.
Dollars make decisions
“This is going to be a budgetary decision,” Weter said of the security staff’s size. “We’re a long way from adopting that budget, and that’s really going to be Mr. Phillips’ budget.”
Johnson and Growcock offered some immediate concessions to try to alleviate staffing concerns. They pledged to stop holding court in the second floor courtroom of the Christian County Historic Courthouse. They also pledged to handle as many of their cases involving jail inmates as possible through teleconferencing, rather than shuttling inmates back and forth between buildings. Growcock has been doing that for the past two years, while operating from the Historic Courthouse.
Ideal staffing levels and practical staffing levels will differ, Johnson said. She gave some comparisons between courtroom operations in Christian County and courtroom operations in Cape Girardeau and Henry counties.
“There is no other state courthouse that operates—I can tell you that, in this state—with this level of security. None,” Johnson said, referring to the suggested staffing levels in the sheriff’s report. “There is not a single county in this state where they believe they are providing the security and the staff that they would like to provide.”
Western District Commissioner Hosea Bilyeu agreed with Weter that the county commission’s decision on staffing will be decided in the budgeting process.
“I think we might be at the point that we simply affirm the plan to open that building and the courtrooms when they are completed and let the people that are involved figure out how that can be done,” Bilyeu said.
Bilyeu supports the county’s decision to build the Justice Center annex, in spite of the current disagreement among officeholders and judges.
“I have personally zero doubt that we are building the right building with the right plans, because there is going to come a day that we need that space,” Bilyeu said.
The commission took no voting action at the conclusion of the meeting with the sheriff and the judges.