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Unmanned Westmoreland courthouse entrance draws criticism

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Union complaints about lax security at one Westmoreland County Courthouse entrance have forced officials to evaluate potential safety breaches.

Park police “like to pretend it's such a secure building. It's a farce,” said Jackie Lucchetti, vice president of the Westmoreland County Court-Related Employees Association.

County officials conceded Wednesday there is a security “vulnerability” at the three-building complex and that an investigation has begun to determine where tighter control is needed.

Lucchetti said union members complained about a security directive instituted in April that requires all county employees to carry their identification cards to enter any courthouse building before the official start of the work day.

Most of the roughly 900 courthouse employees and visitors are required to enter through one of three security checkpoints manned by park police officers and pass through metal detectors.

Lucchetti said commissioners and judges, their staffs, court officials and some court employees are exempt from the ID card edict because they use about 60 parking spaces on the upper level to the eight-story annex building at the intersection of West Otterman Street and South Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Upper Park,” which fronts West Otterman Street, allows for free access for those employees, who can enter the courthouse by simply using a swipe card. There are no cameras, metal detectors or proactive security measures on that level.

Commissioner Charles Anderson said the Upper Park entrance must be re-evaluated.

“It's a vulnerability, and we need to take it seriously,” he said.

The commissioners directed park police Chief Nick Caesar to investigate and make recommendations on enhancing security at the private entrance.

Caesar said he started his own investigation after he received complaints that employees with access to the Upper Park level are allowed to enter the building there, creating a potential for banned items such as firearms to be taken into the courthouse.

“We have been closely monitoring Upper Park since we've received the complaints, and we've seen nothing to substantiate those complaints,” he said.

Caesar said there is no evidence that any employee or elected official has taken a gun into a courthouse building.

In 2004, commissioners approved an ordinance that specifically banned elected officials and judges from taking in guns. All other county employees and visitors already were prohibited from carrying guns into the buildings.

“It's closely monitored,” Caesar said of the unsecured entrance. “We're always evaluating security at all of our entrances.”

Richard Gazarik contributed. Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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