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Private contractor takes on security at courthouses

Securitas USA, rather than Sheriff’s Department, will protect judicial branch in Windham County

BRATTLEBORO—On Sept. 1, a private contractor took control of all security functions at Windham County’s courthouses.

The transition from county sheriff’s protection apparently went smoothly: Officials say the only differences courthouse visitors will notice are “new faces and new-style uniforms” worn by Securitas USA personnel.

But some wonder whether the Windham County security switch is a sign of things to come. The Vermont State Employees Association, a union that represents several categories of Judiciary employees, is speaking out against any further privatization.

“[The union] thinks it’s a really bad decision to transfer the security of any Vermont courthouse from state employees and sworn law enforcement officers to an unknown, private firm with personnel known only to Securitas and no one else,” said Doug Gibson, an Association spokesman.

State officials say they can’t predict whether more Vermont counties will see private courthouse security. But they sound confident in their choice for Windham County.

“The circumstances of the transition from the Windham County Sheriff to Securitas are well known at this point and not worth rehashing,” said Matt Riven, chief of finance and administration for the state Court Administrator’s Office. “Throughout this transition, the security of all court users, including of course the Judiciary’s VSEA members, has been paramount.”

No role for Sheriff

While private contractors are in the courthouse-security security mix elsewhere in Vermont, Windham is now the only county where a sheriff’s department isn't involved at all with protecting the courts.

That’s because Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark and the state court administrator couldn't agree on a new contract for fiscal year 2017, which began July 1.

Clark said the state’s offer wouldn't have covered his costs for providing security at courthouses in Brattleboro and Newfane, while state officials said they couldn't come close to Clark’s asking price due to budgetary constraints.

The Windham sheriff’s department agreed to a two-month extension while the state solicited bids for a new security provider. In late July, officials announced that Securitas USA — a subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas AB — had won a 22-month contract for the county’s courthouses.

That contract began Sept. 1, when Securitas also took over for a different private contractor at the civil and probate division courthouse in Burlington.

The total cost of the deal is $618,255. This represents slightly more than the state paid for security last year, but officials have said security has been enhanced due to increased staffing in Windham County and the addition of an armed screening officer in Chittenden County.

Clark said he has been in communication with state officials over the past few months. But he hasn't actively participated in the security changeover.

“We didn’t provide any training or guidance on how to operate the court [security],” Clark said. “We didn’t want to accept any liability if something would happen in the future.”

Securitas administrators haven't commented on the transition. Personnel at the company’s South Burlington office have referred comment to the state, and a corporate spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Time to prepare

State officials said they had adequate time to prepare for the Windham County switch.

“Both Securitas and the Judicial Branch have done significant training with the new staff,” said Bill Gerke, Judiciary’s security and safety manager.

There also have been communications with court staff, attorneys, and others.

“The Superior Court clerk is keeping the Judicial officers and all stakeholders up to date regarding court operations, as would be done for any issues of mutual concern,” Gerke said.

State officials have pledged “continuous” monitoring of Securitas’ handling of court security functions, which include front-door screening, roving patrols, and court officers. The contract includes a 30-day termination clause that can be exercised by the state or Securitas.

There is some skepticism, though, about the new security setup. Clark said “time will tell” how well it will work.

Gibson said VSEA, which represents employees including docket clerks, case managers, and probate registers, is “very concerned about the Judiciary’s decision to contract with a for-profit, private security firm to protect Vermont’s courthouses.”

“Now that the decision has been made, we’ll be keeping tabs on how Securitas personnel are performing and also on how much money the Judiciary is spending for security compared to when the sheriffs were on duty,” Gibson said.

State officials say they have faith in Securitas and its employees. “Securitas USA was a successful applicant due in part to the extensive process and support they have for hiring, screening, training and equipping,” Gerke said.

Questions remain

It’s unclear, though, whether that faith will translate into more security privatization in Vermont. The Court Administrator’s Office has acknowledged that, without an infusion of cash to boost contract offers, it’s possible that other sheriffs may opt out of courthouse protection.

A January report by Vermont Court Administrator Patricia Gabel called for an additional $1.8 million over two years to boost court officer coverage statewide. The Legislature didn't allocate any additional funding for court officers in fiscal 2017, though there is an extra $615,000 for court security infrastructure.

Asked about further privatization, Gerke said state officials “do not know what the future may hold.”

“The Judiciary values its relationships with the county sheriffs, and wherever possible, we will seek to maintain those contracts,” he said. “But we must manage with the funding that is appropriated.”

The security funding issue is complex, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He has heard from sheriffs who are concerned that their court security costs have gone up. He also said he understands “the concern of VSEA and other groups.”

But Sears, who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, wonders where significant additional funding for court security would come from.

“As long as we continue to spend the way we do on education and health care, that leaves very little to provide for other services in the state,” Sears said. “Everybody is [underfunded] to that extent. Those are the realities that the Legislature faces.”

Asked whether he had any concerns about court security privatization, Sears said he believes it can work in some contexts. One area of concern, he said, is at courthouse entrances where officers encounter weapons and contraband.

“I think, in the long run, I would prefer to see trained law enforcement, particularly at the entrances to the courthouses,” Sears said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #380 (Wednesday, October 26, 2016).

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