Better late than never on court safety


Maybe the state should throw the book at them.

Nine years after the N.J. Administrative Office of the Courts mandated local authorities beef up security for municipal courts, Kearny and Harrison are still lagging behind.

Hudson County Superior Court Assignment Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr., whose office has sought to ensure compliance with Directive 15-06, last week told The Observer that of the 12 municipalities in Hudson, the two West Hudson towns are “the only two left” not to have fully fallen into line.

Asked if he had the authority to order their courts closed, Bariso said that, “in an extreme situation, I guess I could,” but quickly added that both towns are filing updated security plans for weapons screening before entry to the courtroom which he hopes to review shortly.

And the judge said he would be loathe to disrupt local court operations and local residents who might end up having to visit other communities to pay or challenge a ticket or file a complaint or any of the myriad functions that take place in a municipal court.

Both Harrison and Kearny – like the other communities in Hudson – have assigned a local officer as a security detail to maintain order in the courtroom.

But there still remains the matter of determining how best to prevent a visitor – other than a law enforcement agent – from bringing a weapon, undetected, into the courtroom, as required by the state directive.

As noted by Hudson’s Presiding Municipal Court Judge Frank Carpenter III of Bayonne, coming up with such a strategy is all the more important in a county that handles 1.2 million municipal cases a year – which, he said, amounts to 20% of the 6 million cases processed statewide.

“So we do a tremendous volume and generate a lot of revenue,” he added.

And that means a lot of traffic is going in and out of those courtrooms.

On Aug. 11, Kearny took a step toward complete compliance by introducing an ordinance to create a part-time job of “special law enforcement officer,” to be paid at an hourly rate, starting at $18 an hour and ranging up to $24 an hour over seven years.

A public hearing on the ordinance is slated for next month.

Mayor Alberto Santos said the intent is to assign a “Class 2” (armed) special officer – or officers, as many as may be needed – to a courtroom entry detail where some type of metal detection system would be deployed.

The town is currently researching various types of detector devices that would be appropriate for town use, Santos said.

Over the years, Santos said, “we’ve had very few incidents” of unruliness in municipal court and, he added, “those have been contained effectively by our police.”

But, the mayor added, because the court is not contained in a separate facility but, rather, conducts operations from the second floor chambers at Town Hall that it shares with the governing body, “we do have configuration issues,” related to how the town – with input from the Police Department, the court and the town administration – figures how to monitor the various points of access to the court, both via stairway and elevator.

But Judge Bariso said that to the extent that the building housing a court is a local issue, “that becomes beyond my purview.” As for the weapons screening, Bariso said that he’s assured both Kearny and Harrison that, “I’d have no problem with an officer using a [metal detection] wand at the entrance to the courtroom,” if it came down to that.

He said his office has also provided both towns information on the possibility of acquiring a “used X-ray machine” for detection purposes.

In Harrison, where the court is located on the first floor of Town Hall, Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski said: “We already have one Class 2 special officer and we may be getting a second to staff a detector. We’re getting prices on metal detectors and other safety features.”

Harrison anticipates having everything in place “by midto late September,” according to Zarbetski.

Judge Bariso said that while he has not given either town a “drop-dead date” for implementing the security measures, “I’m not going to let it go, either.”

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