New courts integrating First Judicial District juvenile delinquency and domestic cases are slated to open next June.
But at a budget hearing today before City Council, Sheriff Jewell Williams said he doesn’t have the manpower to staff the building – or even to adequately fulfill his office’s existing duties.
That’s why he’s asking for $4.1 million in additional funding to hire 100 additional deputies, along with several support staffers.
“If we have to deploy 40 people over to that building, it will not be enough to secure that building the way it should be,” Williams said.
“We can do it if we have to, but it’ll be a risk. I just hope the victim of that risk is not a citizen doing their civic duty or someone bringing their grandkid to visit a father who has an issue in the court.”
He said the Sheriff’s Office has reached a “critical point” and is in “desperate need” of additional manpower.
“I want to say on the record if you do not hire additional deputies, you’ll be opening up a courthouse next June with untrained professionals,” he said.
Williams pointed out that most violent courthouse incidents – such as the recent shooting in New Castle, Del. – have occurred in domestic courthouses, often in connection with cases involving visitation or child support.
Those are the very courthouses that are in Philadelphia currently staffed by private security firms.
“We have some courthouses where the front line is security personnel, not trained Sheriff’s deputies that go to school to look for certain types of weapons, certain kinds of weapons that disperse projectiles. We’re trained for that.”
Williams said private security workers aren’t held to the same standardized educational programs and retraining sessions as sheriff’s deputies.
“I would not recommend people who don’t have the training on how to recognize a bomb – I would not want to put those people in the courthouse,” he said.
“Because if you don’t have the training, you can actually cost someone’s life.”
He said his staff “are more trained that you could ever imagine,” so much so that he “couldn’t imagine paying someone $8 an hour from a security company” to do the same job.
Travel to train?
The training process for Sheriff’s deputies is another issue Williams raised – the only state-authorized program is currently offered through Penn State University in State College, a two to three-hour commute for most Philadelphians.
“One of the bigger problems with having that is when the Sheriff invites someone to join the Sheriff’s Office and the Sheriff informs them they have to go for 20 weeks to Penn State, many decline because it means 20 weeks away from their families,” he said.
He said he’s advocating for a change in those laws, but it would require action from the state.
“It’s very difficult because of the Republican power structure in Harrisburg but we’re working very hard to see if we can have that legislation amended,” he said.
Williams said he also needs more equipment for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We have deputies who have bulletproof vests and the clock is ticking, it’s expiring,” he said.
“When you wear vests over a certain period of time, the Kevlar or bulletproof material on the vest gets weakened by your body sweat. They haven’t changed those vests in over five years so that’s another incident waiting to happen.”
He said he’d also like to have the staff to be able to confiscate all cell phones and cameras from each courthouse and return them when visitors leave.
“If I had the manpower, I would collect every camera and every phone that came inside that courthouse,” he said.
“But I have to choose between protection from the immediate threat or the threat that may happen later on and I have to use it to protect judges in that courthouse.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “That picture’s going somewhere else. That’s why we need additional deputies.”
Some Council members were critical that Philadelphia’s courts may simply not be run efficiently enough to best use Williams’ services.
Williams said prisoners are escorted to the courthouse an average of five times before they actually see a judge due to delays in proceedings.
He said the sojourn to and from jails alone is also time-consuming.
“There’s a delay bringing people down in morning on 95,” he said.
“If we had a dedicated highway lane, we could bring people faster down to the Criminal Justice Center and, likewise, get them back faster to the prison in the evening.”
He said the court system is clogged – and the backlog is only going to continue.
“The problem is the courts are overwhelmed,” he said.
“We’re getting more inmates every day. The juvenile courts [are] off the hook. There’s an increasing number of young people getting arrested and when look at the adult side, we have more multi-defendant cases which require more deputies in courtroom.”
Williams said the Sheriff’s Office is often left out of public discussions about public safety but plays a key role in protecting judges, witnesses and court staff, as well as assisting other law enforcement agencies in their duties.
He recounted how the Philadelphia Police had to request his office’s assistance during last week’s “flash mob” incident at 15th and Chestnut.
“We are an integral part of law enforcement but a lot of the time we get downplayed because we don’t have the manpower we deserve,” he said.
“Let me just say that again – we deserve to have more deputies to protect the public. Thank God we haven’t had any major incidents at our courthouses, but we are stretched very thin.”
He said in light of recent tragedies, it’s time to “get ready for the unknown.”
“I cannot say this enough,” he said.
“The Sheriff’s Office is in desperate need of those deputies. God forbid if we had a major incident, we could not help all the people we would want to help. And unless we get those additional bodies – I have to put this on public notice – it would be a very disastrous incident if we don’t have the bodies and the trained personnel.”
But as far as raising court fees to pay for his proposed staffing increase, Williams said that’s not a something he’s willing to fight for.
“I can tell you as a political maverick – you don’t talk fees to City Council,” he said. “I’ll be supportive, but I won’t be making the recommendations.”
Written by Alex Wigglesworth for the Metro on April 17, 2013.