How safe are Centre County buildings? New ordinance aims to strengthen security

Centre County commissioners approved an ordinance Tuesday for new security protocols at all county buildings, including the courthouse.
Centre County commissioners approved an ordinance Tuesday for new security protocols at all county buildings, including the courthouse. Centre Daily Times, file

New security protocols are coming to all county buildings, per an ordinance approved by Centre County commissioners on Tuesday.

The new ordinance codifies existing state and county law, which make it illegal to cause disorder or disturb the peace in county buildings and carry firearms or dangerous weapons in a court facility. It also lays out procedures to enforce security, establishes a security committee and sets up penalties for violating the ordinance.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Pipe said the county has been talking about putting together a security ordinance for about a year. He didn’t say whether the ordinance was in response to a security breach at the county.

“Basically we’ve been studying how other counties and their sheriffs have security ordinances set up to let the public know when they’re entering the building and it’s all official,” Pipe said. “Some counties have moved away from just a general understanding of, ‘when you come in, this happens.’ But to officially have it as an ordinance ... strengthens it.”

There have been recent safety issues at the county, including flammable devices thrown on the roof of the county courthouse in Bellefonte in November 2018. In 2016, Hobson McKown, of State College, was convicted of trespassing on Centre County Courthouse property and disorderly conduct.

In an email to the CDT on Tuesday, McKown said that he plans to file a criminal complaint against the commissioners for enacting the ordinance, which he said is unlawful without express legislative designation by the General Assembly.

Under the new ordinance, the county sheriff is designated as the chief of security.

Every person, package or container that comes into a county building is subject to a search by county security personnel, says the ordinance. Searches may include the use of a walk-through metal detector or hand-held metal detector, and can include a pat-down search if the detector emits a signal.

Most county buildings, such as the Willowbank Building, Courthouse and Courthouse Annex, already employ a security checkpoint with a metal detector.

Any weapons brought onto county property will be confiscated and kept by the sheriff or another security officer, says the ordinance. Weapons will be returned to their owners upon leaving the building, if those weapons are being carried legally. County Sheriff Bryan Sampsel said there hasn’t been a time in recent memory when firearms were allowed in county buildings.

The ordinance also allows for the chief of security to operate and monitor security cameras and equipment located near the entries of county property or other locations on county property.

The security committee established by the ordinance will be co-chaired by the county administrator and the county sheriff, and include other county elected officials, personnel or community members with security expertise. Under this new code, the security committee would be able to propose security procedures, policies or ordinances to the Board of Commissioners concerning county property.

If a person is convicted of violating any part of the new ordinance, he or she must pay up to $600 per day of violation, or be imprisoned for up to 10 days, or both.

“If there was any question about what (a person) needed to do when they enter the building, this is now official ... it was more just a response to get it ... codified ... to make sure everybody was aware of it,” Pipe said of the ordinance.

Commissioner Steve Dershem said the county is in talks with the Department of Homeland Security to provide active shooter training for county employees in the future and “insights as to vulnerability at the county.”

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.