Central Court enhances security

Blair County officials have announced enhanced security measures for Central Court in response to calls for action on the heels of the tragic death of Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell that occurred last Nov. 17.

Blair County President Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle, County Commissioner Laura A. Burke and Sheriff Jim Ott stated Monday that beginning Wednesday, those attending preliminary hearings in the Central Court building, 615 Fourth St., will be searched and magnetically wanded before being admitted.

Weapons and contraband will not be permitted in the building, and, the officials stated, items confiscated could lead to arrest and prosecution.

Individuals possessing a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon will be able to store their firearm in a secured locker until the conclusion of their court appearance, the trio emphasized.

Ott said Monday that these new measures represent a first step in upgrading security not only for Central Court but for magisterial offices and other county facilities.

Ott said his deputies will be on hand during the initial screening process.

In November, Russell was killed when an inmate awaiting a preliminary hearing grabbed her gun and threatened her.

A police officer, responding to the ensuing struggle, accidentally shot Russell when the inmate moved her into the line of fire.

Since that incident, there has been a great deal of discussion on improving security at Central Court and the magistrates’ offices.

Ott said that the discussions have included magistrates, court officers, constables and many others.

Last week, Blair County Corrections Officers from the prison announced they would like to participate in the ongoing talks.

Ott emphasized that the initial screening operations represent a short-term solution.

He said discussions on how to address security problems over the long haul are also underway.

The sheriff said people coming to Central Court are being discouraged from bringing large purses, backpacks and other personal items because it will delay entry into the building as deputies will be forced to search each of those items.

Those larger items should be left at home or in the car, he said.

“Persons having appointments at Central Court are advised to arrive early,” Ott said.

“Everybody had an opinion,” he said, emphasizing that many people had a voice on ways to improve security in the Central Court building.

How many deputies or other officers will be needed to conduct the screening on a weekly basis hasn’t been ironed out yet, but Ott said he intends to address the numbers up or down as time goes on.

Security at Central Court will continue to be provided by a combination of Blair County sheriff’s deputies, Pennsylvania state constables, corrections officers from the Blair County Prison and law enforcement, he said.

“My staff will work the first day since we do the screening process at the courthouse,” Ott said.

“We have been meeting for several weeks,” Burke said. “This is a good step in keeping people safe.”

She said she is anxious to see how things go and whether further steps need to be taken.

She was pleased with the participation in the discussion that included the District Attorney’s Office, the magistrates, the sheriff and others, Burke said.

The courthouse, Burke noted, has tightened security for the past 15 years.


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