Fulton considers cutting courthouse security plan

Fulton County commissioners are considering whether to cut more than $6 million for security upgrades, which were recommended for the county courthouse in response to the murderous rampage that occurred there five years ago.

During a hastily called meeting Wednesday, commissioners heard pleas from top court officials who said the security enhancements were sorely needed. Instead of making a final decision, commissioners tabled the issue until their next meeting on Aug. 18.

"We are in a difficult situation at the courthouse," District Attorney Paul Howard told the panel. "We all know what happened with Brian Nichols. If someone asked me my opinion, I believe it has gotten more dangerous."

In March 2005, Nichols overtook a deputy in a courthouse holding cell and used her gun to kill a judge, a court stenographer and a deputy before fleeing and later killing an off-duty federal agent in his home.

After a federal review, courthouse officials have proposed $4.5 million for a command center and monitoring system and almost $1.9 million in security upgrades for Juvenile Court.

The money for the security upgrades is less than what the county paid out in wrongful death claims to the families of Nichols' victims, Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright told the commission.

"We think it's time for this commission to take a stand for security," she said. "This board is on notice there is a problem."

The commission is considering whether to redirect funds for the security upgrades to other projects as part of more than $26 million made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Instead of security upgrades, the commission may spend the stimulus money on a $5 million "Aviation Cultural Community Center" near Fulton County Airport-Brown Field on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. Also being considered are a $1.5 million "re-entry center" at the county jail to combat recidivism and projects to upgrade a health center, enhance security at bus stops and provide transportation for senior citizens.

Commissioner Bill Edwards said if the commission deletes the security projects from the package, the county can still try to fund them through other means.

"Everybody has needs," he said. "Our job as a board is to justify the needs of so many with limited resources. ... It's not manna from heaven. It's money from the government. And we're not abdicating our responsibility to make the justice system safe."

Commissioner Emma Darnell defended the aviation center, which would honor Tuskegee Airmen, saying it has been put off since 1999.

"I feel very good about the support we've given to criminal justice," she added.

But Commissioner Tom Lowe accused fellow commissioners of sliding new projects onto the agenda that do not protect the community.

"Our number one priority ought to be the protection of the citizens of the city of Atlanta," Lowe said, as Darnell walked out of the room. There are people who are summoned to the courthouse to appear on juries, he added, "and by God we ought to protect them."