Jefferson County commissioners were taken aback today when they learned during their committee meeting of an effort to establish a department of security for the courthouse.
Commissioner Sheila Tyson suggested the action, which was presented by county manager Tony Petelos. Weeks ago, Commissioner Lashunda Scales suggested that security at the courthouse be beefed up.
Commissioner Joe Knight, the chair of the budget and finance committees, said he was caught off guard by the proposed resolution.
“That’s another department, that’s another staffing,” he said. “We want to know how’s it going to be staffed. How many people do you need? Where are they going to be? And will this transpose over to our criminal court building to help over there with the safety over there across the street?”
Commissioners opted to pull the proposal back for further discussion. county attorney Theo Lawson suggested that the panel consider going into executive session at its next committee meeting to talk about security concerns.
After the meeting, Knight acknowledged that circuit court judges at the courthouse have expressed concerns about security. He cited the circumstance of family members of a victim and alleged perpetrator of a crime being in the same place, which can spark sharp interaction.
“They’re riding up the elevator together and sometimes things get a little heated,” he said. “Back when I practiced over there, we actually had a shooting outside the courthouse after a trial. The judges are concerned … they’re down to one bailiff in their courtroom. When that bailiff has to take somebody to the jail or back to jail, basically that judge and courtroom is unprotected.”
Knight acknowledged that the security detail at the courthouses in Birmingham and Bessemer, juvenile detention and other locations are not deputy sheriffs but, instead, security guards on the level of bailiffs.
Earlier, commissioners were told of the efforts of two security officers – Damian Zolik and Terrika Jackson – who saw on security video two Birmingham police officers chasing a suspect into the county parking deck.
“They ran across the street to get over there and help them,” said Barry Kennamer, chief of security for the Jefferson County Commission. “Without them paying attention and going over to help them, there’s no telling how it would have turned out.”
In another matter, Frank T. Martin, executive director and CEO of Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority, gave commissioners an update on the transit system, specifically the success of the pilot program the commission funded to expand service into Forestdale and Adamsville, and the restoration of service to Fairfield, Brighton and Lipscomb.
“There may be annual modifications on service going forward,” he said, “however it’s very, very critical for each community, as they identify the services (that) they would like us to provide for them, to be able to fund them properly.”
Martin said rider rates had risen little during the past several decades, adding that the authority had settled on a rate of $1.50. Commissioner Jimmie Stephens suggested that lowering the rate to $1 might increase ridership.
“While it might be good to have additional ridership, I do not think 25 cents will encourage that many more people to ride the system,” he said, referencing a drop from $1.25. “We still have one of the lowest fares in the country. What we really need to have is a stronger commitment collectively from all of our elected officials to properly fund public transportation in this area.”
Martin said mobility management has become the key term in transit across the country, looking not only at mass transit but coordination with other modes of transportation, like Uber, Lyft and shared vehicles like bicycles.
The BJCTA leader said bus rapid transit, which is in its design phase, will be a game-changer in the area as it will be the first major improvement to public transportation in many years. It carves out a 10-mile corridor from Woodlawn, through downtown to the Birmingham CrossPlex; it is set to come online in the late spring to early summer of 2022.
“What we also will be doing is evaluating the services that feed into the BRT,” he said. “We have a number of programs and projects that we will be starting in the next 60 to 90 days to really redefine what the system will look like locally.”
Youth Detention Concerns
Monique Grier, director of Jefferson County’s G. Ross Bell Youth Detention Center, gave commissioners a preliminary look at the detention of youth. She noted recent federal mandates for youth who are tried as adults – “with the exception of just a few” – to be moved back from the county jail to juvenile detention.
“As a result of this, we will be needing additional staffing and additional training and additional services for these young people,” she said. “We’ve seen an increase in our … residents currently and that will only increase over time.”
Grier said current detention residents are staying longer with limited services for them. “Now when we talk about bringing on that juvenile population that’s facing adult charges, we’re really talking about increasing the length of stay,” she said, “potentially by years.”