In a storeroom off the lobby of the El Paso County Administration Building, shelves teem with blades, tools and chemicals. This isn't the janitor's closet or a weapons cache for the Sheriff's Office.
It's a one-month's collection of items taken from (mostly) innocent citizens entering the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex.
Believe it or not, people come to court armed to the teeth. In January alone, the county collected a dozen pepper spray canisters, 47 pairs of scissors, 36 tools such as screwdrivers, and 365 blades ranging from slasher-movie knives to tiny souvenir trinkets — 538 items in total.
While some people bearing banned objects might have sinister motives, most are simply forgetful. (Though we do wonder how a woman forgets having a full-sized hammer in her purse.)
"That's the excuse they make all the time," says security official Claudia List.
And there are chuckleheads who try to bring in items illegal to possess in any circumstance, from switchblades to drugs. Two a month are arrested on the spot.
Most offenders, though, are carrying run-of-the-mill knives, corkscrews or knitting needles. They're all destined for disposal, along with items found around the courthouse, by the Sheriff's Office. The exceptions are tools the Facilities Department can use; cell phones, which are donated to TESSA for domestic violence victims; and glasses, gloves, hats and scarves, which go to Disabled American Veterans.
When potential weapons are detected, says county security chief Rick Leffler, "We give people an option. We'll tell them, 'This isn't allowed. You can take it back to your car, or we will take it, but you can't get it back.'" More than half surrender their items.
Occasionally, a person may retrieve an heirloom, such as a pocketknife given to them by a grandfather, Leffler says. Allowing everyone to claim their items was abandoned a couple years ago, because it was too time-consuming for Leffler's staff. A third of his 30 members work the courthouse, with some leaving other posts to beef up judicial center checkpoints during the 7:30 to 9 a.m. rush.
With the help of scanners for purses and briefcases, a backscatter X-ray machine (that you step into) and hand-held detectors, Leffler's employees monitor for even the tiniest item that could turn deadly in the wrong hands.
Courthouses have a potential for violence second only to prisons, according to the National Center for State Courts. That's because courtrooms can be battlegrounds, where people face the loss of their freedom or kids.
Keeping an eye on the X-ray machine, security guard Denise Layden notes the pinkish-orange color indicates biological material, such as leather, while anything green or blue is metal. She's also on the lookout for hidden stuff, like knives embedded in belt buckles.
"A mistake could mean a judge, an attorney, a witness," she says, but adds, "I don't think there's anyone that's 100 percent. We're all human and make mistakes."
About twice a year, a defendant in a criminal case gets through with a weapon that's found when he or she is arrested in a courtroom and frisked. How many items get through and aren't found is anyone's guess.
"When we do have something get through, we do take it very, very seriously," Leffler says. "We stress to our folks, if you're not sure, stop and take a look."
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