Fayette court employees soon could tote Tasers

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

The new year will bring new security measures to the Fayette County Courthouse, including the likelihood tipstaffs will be armed with Taser guns.

The county's four tipstaffs underwent training last year from certified instructor David Rutter in anticipation of the change. President Judge John F. Wagner Jr. said he is awaiting the OK from county commissioners before ordering the tipstaffs to begin carrying the stun guns.

“We're waiting to see whether the commissioners' insurance has any requirements,” Wagner said. “Since they are trained and are the first line of security in the courtroom, it just followed that they should carry a Taser.”

Tipstaffs typically order courtroom visitors to rise when a judge enters and takes the bench. Other duties include administering oaths to witnesses, overseeing jury panels and assisting judges with a variety of tasks, said Karen Kuhn, court administrator.

Courtroom security in neighboring Westmoreland County is provided by sheriff's deputies who carry Taser guns. Tipstaffs are not armed.

“The policy is they are not allowed to bring a firearm in. There has been discussion about whether that should be changed, but it has not been changed,” Court Administrator Paul Kuntz said.

Claire Capistro, Allegheny County's court administrator, said the sheriff's department provides courtroom security. She declined comment on whether or not tipstaffs are armed.

Steve Schell, spokesman with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts in Harrisburg, said data on whether tipstaffs in other counties carry weapons or Tasers is not tracked through his office.

The change in Fayette is being made at the same time court constables have been moved from under the court's direction to the office of Sheriff Gary Brownfield.

Wagner said court constables will still be in the courtrooms when needed, but they will have additional duties under the sheriff's office.

Brownfield said the three full-time and nine part-time court constables, when not in the courtrooms, will patrol the halls and assist with security at the front door and a basement employee entrance.

The added help at the front door will be most noticeable during criminal court week, Brownfield said, when between 1,300 and 1,500 people are screened for weapons as they enter the courthouse in Uniontown. The front door currently is manned by one security officer, with assistance provided as needed, he said.

With just four sheriff's deputies on staff to serve warrants, Brownfield said the court constables will relieve the front-door security officers at the courthouse and nearby Public Service Building for lunch breaks. That change will free the deputies to serve warrants uninterrupted because they will no longer have to return to the courthouse just to perform that duty, Brownfield said.

In addition, the constables will be trained and certified to carry firearms, Brownfield said.

The constables now carry Taser guns. Wagner said if those Tasers are not available for the tipstaffs' use, the courts will buy their own.

Before the addition of the court constables, Brownfield's department had three security officers, four deputies and one chief deputy on staff.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com. Staff writer Rich Cholodofsky contributed to this report.

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