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Keeping courthouse safe is important job

Melissa Topey • Mar 18, 2014 at 8:25 AM

They never know what they may find.

Erie County sheriff’s deputies (retired Lt.) Joe McPeek and Val Ripley are the first line of defense at the Erie County Common Pleas Court. They run the security checkpoint and metal detector at the courthouse entrance.

The security checkpoint came under the control of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office about a year ago. Until then, a civilian crew ran the checkpoint, with deputies in charge of the rest of the building.

“This is a very emotional building. People are either very happy or very upset. We understand that,” Ripley said.

It is their job to keep those emotions in check as hundreds pass through every day.

My skills were tested alongside them on Tuesday for this week’s On the Job.

I failed.

An elderly woman and man came into the courthouse. She put her purse into one of the gray plastic tubs and McPeek slid it into the scanner, which Ripley and I were operating. I noticed the cell phone right away.

That is a “no no” in the courthouse since 2010. “I will have to ask this lady to open her purse. You will see why in a moment” Ripley whispered to me. “Ma’am do you have a cell phone, iPod mini and a knife in your purse?” she asked. What! A knife? I am looking at the screen and see nothing.

The lady removed her phone, her iPod mini and a small Swiss Army knife. “I forgot that was in there,” the lady said. It was obvious she was embarrassed and that she really had forgotten the knife. Most of the time, people don’t remember they are carrying an item, the deputies said. “They have other things on their mind” Ripley said.

We took the items for the duration of their visit to the courthouse and locked them up. 

They would pick them up on their way out. I continued to look at the screen. “Do you see that small corkscrew looking item there?” Ripley pointed out on the screen. “Yes” I said. “That tells me it’s a knife” he said.

I looked up at McPeek. “She is the best” McPeek said. Ripley, just the day before, found a stun gun in a woman’s purse. “I looked at her and told her she could not have that in the courthouse” Ripley said. 

The woman’s son took it back out to the car.

“I looked at the image on the screen and I still could not see it,” McPeek said.

They keep a list of potentially dangerous items they find, along with the date and time.

Knives are the most common. Also on the list: Screwdrivers and pepper spray.

I used the hand wand to scan assistant prosecutor Jeanne Lippert, and Erie County public defenders Jeff Whitacre and Harsh Tandon, as well as Luvada Wilson, Erie County clerk of courts.

I asked my security cohorts to describe some of the more unusual encounters they have had. “A pregnant woman wanted to go through to see the sex of the baby,” McPeek said.

I cleared lots of people through the scanner. I lost count how many.

McPeek enjoyed quizzing me about what appeared on the screen when I would run bags, briefcases and loose items through. The most common items I saw on the scanner were keys, paper clips and binders holding documents. I stopped a woman who had a cell phone in her purse. “Ma’am, do you have a cell phone?” I asked doing my best Ripley impersonation. “I work on the fourth floor,” she said. 

Courthouse employees are allowed to bring their cell phones in. So instead of confiscating a cell phone I offered an apology. “I am sorry I did not know you worked here” I said.

She seemed fine.

I think the power was getting to my head.

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