Court safety is ongoing battle

JIMMY ELLINGHAM
Last updated 12:00 24/06/2013

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Knives, multi-tools, scissors and screwdrivers are just some of the potential weapons people try to walk into courthouses with.

This year Palmerston North court security officers uncovered a new threat when one man was stopped trying to enter the city's courthouse with a thin fold-away knife shaped like a credit card which was tucked into his wallet.

The man was charged with possession of a weapon.

Courts around New Zealand have differing security but in Palmerston North everybody entering the courthouse must put their bags through an X-ray machine and walk through a metal detector.

Those who beep are then checked with a smaller scanner to see if the noise was caused by hidden contraband.

In Palmerston North since 2008, 15,296 items have been taken into "temporary custody" by court security and returned to their owners when they leave court, according to figures released by the Ministry of Justice under the Official Information Act.

Seven more sinister items have been seized permanently, including two so far this year.

Around New Zealand in the same period, 38,682 items have been temporarily taken off members of the public, while 145 items have been seized.

The stringent measures brought in should ensure there is no repeat of a killing in the Palmerston North courthouse foyer in July 1998.

Outside a Family Court hearing, John Harold Raymond La Roche fatally stabbed his former partner, Margaret Elizabeth Bennellick.

La Roche is serving a life sentence in prison.

Sixteen courts nationwide have both X-ray machines and metal detectors, while 13, including Levin, operate walk-through metal detectors.

There are also 92 hand-held metal detecting scanners that security officers can take to different locations when required.

"We take the issue of court security very seriously," district courts general manager Tony Fisher said.

"The country's courthouses are all unique and present different needs . . . [and] our security measures are under constant review."

The ministry introduced tougher security measures in 2009, which initially faced some opposition. In Wellington, a group of lawyers objected to having their belongings screened.

And the measures are not always foolproof - this year Christchurch lawyer Craig Ruane walked into the southern city's courthouse with a gun in his briefcase.

The weapon was not detected on an X-ray machine, prompting a ministry probe.

However, Mr Fisher said since security was tightened the number of "reported security incidents" had fallen from 557 in 2008/09 to 361 in 2011/12.

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The number of "serious incidents" had dropped from 211 to 78 in the same period.

A funding injection had allowed the number of security officers to double from 54 in 2008/09, to 105. The Palmerston North courthouse has five fulltime officers. The number of people trying to bring potential weapons into courthouses has dropped from one in 77 in 2008 to one in 186 last year.

- Manawatu Standard

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