Tuesday, January 23, 1996
High cost of out-guessing the lunatics

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When my granddaughter was born, the doctor attached a little plastic tag, which I assumed had some medical purpose. It didn't. It was a security device. You don't hear about many babies being lifted from hospitals around here, but it could happen. So newborns are wired.

Just in case.

Ever notice those chain-link guards on the sides of overpasses? Each one costs us taxpayers about $75,000 and is designed to keep lunatics from dropping bricks on motorists. This doesn't happen often, but we know it's possible. So we build these expensive eyesores.

Just in case.

High-tech courthouse

Which brings me to the Hamilton County Courthouse. What a great, big, beautiful monster of a place. Marble and echoes everywhere. Lots of bad people on their best behavior. If you aren't a regular, the corridors of justice are daunting.

For the past two weeks, the regulars, if they're employees, flash ID cards and enter without an electronic frisking. Everybody else has to walk through metal detectors and put their stuff - packages, briefcases, purses - on a conveyor belt running to an X-ray.

Not everybody thought it was necessary to blemish the beautiful arched hallway with more security.

On one side were the judges, who almost unanimously said that it was just a matter of time before somebody got hurt. On the other was Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., who thought having deputies patrol the hallways was protection enough.

Since I had important and dangerous business at Burrito Joe's on Court Street anyway, I stopped in to see how it works.

The line wasn't too bad. Some short, smart-alecky lawyer with a bad haircut stood behind me, whistling nervously. As we approached the conveyor belt, he lobbed his attache case over my shoulder. ''I'm late,'' he said.

Some of the attorneys have been complaining about delays, according to Capt. Dan Kern, who's in charge of security. ''But most people will get used to the idea that they just have to get started a little earlier.''

A roll of blue tickets, the kind that get you three tries at the goldfish booth at St. Mary's Festival, is coiled on one end of the X-ray machine. Used to check weapons, they're just temporary. Plastic chips have been ordered, so it will be more like a coat check.

About 130 weapons a day

So far, Capt. Kern says, ''we've been averaging about 130 weapons a day.''

That's not as bad as it sounds. It includes pocketknives, nail files, Mace and stun devices. ''No guns yet, and no concealed weapons. But we don't know how many people leave when they see that they have to go through security.''

Some weapons don't look like weapons. The sheriff's department subscribes to magazines such as Soldier of Fortune to check the latest in arcane weaponry. The officers have to look for knives disguised as belt buckles, lipsticks and pens.

''One day, we sent a thousand packages through X-ray in an hour. We rotate people so that they stay fresh and alert,'' Capt. Kern says. The department tries to relieve them after about an hour.

I watched deputies politely insist that everybody queue up. Even attorneys in a hurry. The deputies were polite, fresh and alert.

A friend of mine says this is a big waste of time and money to protect judges who, after all, volunteer for their jobs. I watched the crowd, which included several women with small children, clerks, some major and minor crooks - not to mention good, old irreplaceable me.

''So who will be the first to die? The juror, the child on the courthouse tour, the judge who passes the tough sentence? When it happens,'' Judge Ann Marie Tracey said 1ï years ago, pleading for the increased security, ''it will seem unexpected. But it is predictable.''

Although more people have been shot inside a trucking company than in this courthouse, there's potential for danger. So besides spending about $350,000 to install these checkpoints, we will spend about $360,000 a year for the deputies on duty there. The gates are ugly. And you have to stand in line.

Just in case.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.