Despite security upgrades promised since 2014, essential security screening equipment for St. John’s Supreme Court is collecting dust and it’s all because of staffing issues.
Try walking into provincial court in Atlantic Place in downtown St. John’s and you’re met with security screening much like that of an airport.
Try walking into the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador directly across the street and you may not get screened at all.
Point-of-entry screening systems, including metal detectors and X-ray machines, were installed in the provincial court in 2011 and the unified family court in 2014. The Supreme Court was slated for security upgrades by fall 2016.
But those upgrades have yet to begin.
Derrick Peddle is the superintendent for the sheriff’s office. He says the delays are all due to staffing issues.
“We don’t have any physical security in there right now,” said Peddle. “We have it purchased. We just don’t have it installed yet. We can install it all in a weekend. We’re just waiting for the staffing to come online.”
Peddle has been waiting for over a year now.
Dan Chafe, the high sheriff for Newfoundland and Labrador, says the delay is also due, in part, to the exhaustive candidate selection process which can take as long as eight months.
“It’s not an easy process to get into the sheriff’s office,” said Chafe.
“Right now we have a class of 14 … so even if we lose a couple we’re still good. To run one of those systems we need another three people.”
The class is scheduled to graduate in April.
Bob Buckingham has been a trial lawyer in St. John’s since 1992 and has had his fair share of notorious clients. He places blame squarely on administration.
“Why there has been such a delay at the Supreme Court is beyond my experience,” Buckingham said.
The need for enhanced security measures was detailed back in 2013. The provincial government commissioned the DesRoches Report, an independent review of courthouse security across the province. The report’s recommendations resulted in a $6.4 million investment to increase staffing and enhance the structure and organization of court security.
Buckingham agrees that a more secure system is needed. Despite retaining a personal security team in response to direct threats made during the Trevor Pardy murder trial, he acknowledged the collaborative work of the sheriff’s department.
“There’s always a higher presence of sheriff officers when verdicts come down, especially in higher level of cases like murder and manslaughter,” said Buckingham. “I guess we just leave it up to them to do their threat assessments and hopefully they’re on top of it enough to be able to prevent anything from happening.”
The sheriff’s department acknowledges the security limitations of the 113-year-old Supreme Court building. Security measures currently use cameras, radios and other surveillance methods. As well, all deputies have extensive use-of-force training.
Peddle feels confident that, despite its lack of screening for weapons, the Supreme Court in St. John’s is secure.
“I would say (it’s) very safe especially in the ones where we have point-of-entry screening,” said Peddle. “The others are probably a step down, but to measure it would be impossible. We confiscate items daily.”
Buckingham says he looks forward to seeing screening in place soon. He admits they will serve as a deterrent to those bringing weapons into the courthouse but adds nothing is foolproof.
“If somebody has a grudge against a particular lawyer or judge or whatever, you can always get them outside the court,” Buckingham said, half joking.