By JOSH NEWTON
Representatives from Cherokee County and the city of Tahlequah gathered Wednesday morning to discuss what can and should be done to better prepare for threatening situations at the courthouse.
Authorities evacuated the building March 27 and closed it for half the day when a man phoned in a bomb threat. Parts of the courthouse were again evacuated Tuesday, less than a week after the bomb threat, when a menacing letter with a suspicious powdery substance was discovered in a judge’s office.
Cherokee County District 1 Commissioner Doug Hubbard said it doesn’t appear any “drastic” changes will be in the works, but the county’s safety director, Kim Harris, will be working with Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Gary Dotson to suggest any needed changes.
Sheriff Norman Fisher is trying to make security more visible in the courthouse, and he plans to have a deputy stationed near the main entrance to the second floor. The deputy may also make his way through the various offices inside the building.
“A lot of these problems can be deterred just by visibility, so we’ll try to keep one deputy at the door and one in the courtrooms,” Fisher said. “I feel like we’ve got a good, secure courthouse, but you can always make improvements.”
The courthouse has many surveillance cameras that watch over hallways, entrances and stairwells, and an alarm system that is hooked into all county offices. The city, with its offices on the first floor of the courthouse, has its own surveillance system in place.
Fisher said the county doesn’t have the funds to install metal detectors at the courthouse, which would take several operators on a daily basis.
Officials are also eyeing the courthouse evacuation plan.
“We’re going to work on locations we’ll use for people that have been evacuated,” said Hubbard. “We also discussed problems with contamination and trying to contain those who may have been contaminated to one particular area, rather than evacuate them out into the public.”
Dotson said employees and visitors to the courthouse were sent across the street during the late-March bomb threat.
“That was too close,” said Dotson. “So we’re working on a new plan for that part of our response, with a better plan about who goes in and who goes out. We want to have a better lock-down procedure.”
Dotson said city and county officials will also work on the notification process used to tell others – especially those in surrounding facilities – about potential threats. Undersheriff Jason Chennault will become the county’s official spokesman for incidents such as the threats at the courthouse.
Officials will have another meeting in the coming days, Hubbard said, and the ideas that ultimately surface in the meetings will be passed on to county commissioners for consideration and implementation.