Security goes on alert at courthouse
by Joshua Sharpe
June 11, 2014 04:00 AM | 3297 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Capt. Ken Locke, one of the commanders of the Cherokee County Justice Center, says training makes the difference when it comes to courthouse security.<br>Staff/C.B. Schmelter
Capt. Ken Locke, one of the commanders of the Cherokee County Justice Center, says training makes the difference when it comes to courthouse security.
Staff/C.B. Schmelter
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CANTON — When an armed man arrived at the courthouse in Cumming with grim plans Friday, tension rose 23 miles away at the Cherokee County Justice Center in Canton.

After the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office got word of the incident in Forsyth, a SWAT team was posted outside the courthouse, all department heads and judges in Canton were notified and foot patrols around the building increased, officials said.

“It wasn’t like this was in South Georgia, in Thomas County or something — this was next door,” Cherokee Sheriff Roger Garrison said during an interview at the Cherokee County Justice Center on Tuesday.

Garrison said authorities in Forsyth had reason to worry the incident, which ended with a deputy shot and the suspect dead, could be mirrored in other communities, but “We would’ve upped our level of awareness anyway.”

The added security was on top of an already extensive operation the Sheriff’s Office runs at the Justice Center, with metal detectors, deputies throughout the building and a copious amount of cameras monitored constantly.

“The sanctity of what goes on in here is precious to our society,” Garrison said. “And we’re got to be very serious, very diligent in our job of protecting that.”

That’s because what happened in Forsyth County could happen in many places.

The sheriff said it appears the man in Forsyth, identified in the media as Dennis Ronald Marx of Cumming, was upset with authorities and came to a breaking point. According to media reports, Marx drove up to the courthouse and shot a deputy who confronted him, before being gunned down outside the building.

“I can assure you: we’ve got plenty of people in this community who are on edge just like him,” Garrison said. “It’s just, ‘What is the trigger that sets (him) off for him to go from the planning stage into some delivery stage?’”

Garrison said police in Forsyth did a great job of neutralizing the threat and deputies at the Cherokee courthouse undergo regular training to ensure they have similar results another person gets similar ideas.

Capt. Ken Locke, one of the commanders of the courthouse security operation, said it’s the training that makes the difference.

“You hope to stay above the curve,” Locke said in his office Tuesday, next to two giant screens showing live streams from the security cameras. “Training is very, very valuable. You come to the courthouse, it’s not to get a paycheck. You’ve got your divorces, your domestic disputes, your property disagreements. This is a very volatile area.”

Because of that, Locke said deputies are constantly reminded to watch their surroundings, and they are trained in-house and sent out of town — even out of state — to learn about how they might better protect the courthouse.

Maj. Karen Johnson, who is the head of the courthouse operation, said Sheriff’s Office personnel, judges and department heads at the courthouse meet monthly to talk about safety and security, and plans to protect the building are updated every year. The county’s emergency management department also sends out emails when incidents of public violence happen.

“They keep us pretty in-tune with what’s going on anytime there’s an emergency situation, national or local,” she said Monday.

Because of the nature of courthouses, State Court Judge A. Dee Morris said violence can be a worry, but it usually isn’t for him, because of the deputies in Canton who keep watch over the building.

“I know they’re worrying about it for me,” he said. “They’re well trained, they’re professional, they’re as good as it gets and they’re doing everything they can.”

As far back as Locke and the sheriff could remember, they said the courthouse hasn’t seen any significant threats, other than a few false bomb threats in recent years. But Garrison said, “A week ago, Forsyth County was able to make that same statement probably.”

As more incidents like the one in Forsyth — and around the country — happen, the way Cherokee County looks at security on government buildings changes.

The Justice Center was designed well for safety concerns, Garrison said, as it has but two well-placed entrances where deputies screen for weapons. There was a time when security was mostly focused inside the courtroom. But since the early 1990s, when the courthouse opened, attacks, such as those of Sept. 11, 2001, and federal building assaults, have changed the mentality about security, he said.

“Now, there’s an attack potentially on the building itself, just because it’s a government building,” Garrison said. “It’s ever-evolving.”

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