QUITMAN -- A semiautomatic handgun was found taped under a seat in a holding cell at the Brooks County Courthouse.

Flares were found in the Brooks County Courthouse courtroom -- in the jury box, in a judge's bench drawer and in a drawer in a nearby table where court officials sit.

The road flares could have been dynamite, the chief judge of the Southern Judicial Circuit told a courtroom gathering Tuesday of judges, sheriffs, county commissioners and other officials from the five counties in the circuit.

The flares and firearm were placed in the courtroom and holding cell by a district-level judicial official to prove a point: The individual went unnoticed as he made his way around the building planting the items.

With the exception of Lowndes County, the flares and pistol could just as easily have been slipped into other courthouses in the judicial circuit, Judge H. Arthur McLane told officials.

He held up a belt with a buckle that doubled as a small knife. The article was discovered via security equipment at the Lowndes courthouse.

"That'll open up somebody's throat in a heartbeat," the judge said, holding up the shiny, little knife.

McLane expressed regret about the necessity of the meeting to discuss courthouse security. Courthouses used to be places were disputes were solved peacefully, but those times are gone forever, he added.

Incidents of courtroom violence used to be limited to large, metropolitan areas, but neither is that the case today.

Most incidents in Georgia have been in small towns -- Kingsland and Hinesville in Georgia and Port St. Joe in the Florida Panhandle.

"Unless you have a secure courthouse, you're wasting your time to put a metal detector at the front door," McLane said.

He suggested the following steps to address courthouse security:

- Close all but one entrance.

- Install good, quality metal detectors and X-ray machines.

- Provide adequate, well-trained, physically fit security personnel.

- Install adequate surveillance and protection systems.

Although he said no security system is perfect, McLane hopes county commissioners will go to work immediately to secure their respective courthouses.

Noting the March courtroom murders of a Fulton County Superior Court judge, a court reporter and a deputy and the wounding of another deputy and a newspaper reporter, McLane said the Southern circuit can no longer ignore the danger that lurks in county office hubs.

The absence of courthouse security measures also leaves county officials open to multimillion lawsuits, the judge reminded officials.

"Security, like everything else, is not cheap," he added.

McLane is eyeing multiple purchases of security equipment to obtain a better price, looking at the possibility of Homeland Security funding and seeking state money.

McLane said a one-size-fits-all answer to courthouse security statewide is not appropriate for the Southern circuit. The jurisdiction has different needs and security issues, he explained.

Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 220.

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