The days of entering the Aiken County Judicial Center through one of its many entrances have long passed.
Since around 2000, visitors have entered through one entrance, while employees have a separate, badge-activated entrance.
Stepping through a metal detector at the door to a courtroom only when court is in session has been replaced with a thorough security screening at the main entry for anyone entering the facility. Some neighboring courthouses are even banning visitors' cell phones and handbags.
In the aftermath of events last week in Alabama, where an employee shot and killed himself in a federal courthouse, and in Newtown, Conn., where a man opened fire inside an elementary school, courthouse officials said security will only continue to get tighter.
Visitors coming into the Aiken courthouse must empty their pockets completely, place their belongings into a bin, and place the bin onto a conveyer belt that runs through an X-ray machine. Since early 2011, visitors have been asked to remove their belts and place them in the bin with their other belongings.
“Times are changing,” said Lt. Nancy Kieltsch, head of courthouse security. “We have to accommodate those changes.”
Kieltsch said security has become more stringent as people have become more creative – and weapons, more inconspicuous.
Recently, a man entering the courthouse was surprised when officers asked him to remove his belt.
“He says, 'You guys are the first ones that have ever asked me to remove my belt,'” Kieltsch said.
When the belt went through the X-ray, officers realized there was a knife hidden inside. The belt buckle was the handle of the knife, and the blade was concealed in the belt.
The man is a law enforcement officer in another jurisdiction, “nowhere within the CSRA,” Kieltsch said. “He's had it for a while, and he wears it everywhere he goes. We're the first ones to have him remove his belt.”
Only a handful of courthouses in South Carolina ask visitors coming in to remove their belts, including Columbia, Saluda and Lancaster, according to Clerk of Court Liz Godard.
At Lancaster, which Godard said is “high security,” visitors can't bring in cell phones or handbags.
“We're gonna get there one day,” she said. “Right now, it's not feasible for us to do that. This building was not built for security. We've put a lot of things here in place, but it's not designed for that, the way they built it with all the doors.”
The courthouse will soon get a new X-ray and metal detector system at the main entrance, which is being donated by the U.S. Marshals Service from the Charles E. Simon Federal Courthouse in Aiken.
Godard and Kieltsch could not comment on specifics of the new equipment but said it will replace the current aging system.
“It's a really fantastic piece of equipment,” Godard said. “We're working on getting it here as fast as we can, hopefully, in less than two months.”
Godard said most of the cases in which people are caught with weapons are “innocent.”
Kieltsch added that most people take the items back to their vehicles without incident when asked.
“We try to be reasonable,” she said. “They run in here; they're not thinking about it.”
Kieltsch and Goddard said the security guidelines affect people beyond the courthouse. In one case, officers found a knife on a man entering the building and asked him to take it back to his vehicle.
“He goes outside and puts it, according to him, in a secure, safe area,” Kieltsch said, adding that the man threw the knife into the bushes outside the door.
Godard said trustees – inmates in jail for minor offenses who are at the courthouse for work purposes – could have picked up the knife and brought it into the building, or taken it back to the detention center.
“On top of that, we have a church next door,” Kieltsch said, referring to St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church, which shares a parking lot with the courthouse. “We have kids that come up with their parents, and they're on the grounds at any particular moment.”
Currently, employees can enter or exit through a special entrance using a proximity badge.
Godard said changes may come in the aftermath of the courthouse incident in Alabama, where an employee brought a gun in through the employee entrance, then shot and killed himself.
“We're working on that issue,” Godard said. “There could be changes.”
Godard and Kieltsch said making the screening process more thorough has slowed it down, but that there are ways visitors can minimize waiting.
Weapons, including guns, knives, scissors, other sharp objects and pepper spray, are not allowed.
Visitors must empty their pockets of everything, including coins, wallets, electronic devices and jewelry. Kieltsch encourages visitors to leave the unnecessary items in their vehicles.
“The less metal they have on them, the quicker the process is through screening,” she said. Additionally, people wearing metal-toe boots will be asked to pull the sides of the shoe open so officers can make sure there are no objects inside.
“Not every system is 100 percent, but we do our best with what we have for now,” Kieltsch said. “That's why we're working on improvements.”
Godard asked the public to be patient with courthouse staff as they modify their procedures.
“We've come a long way. We still have a long way,” she said. “Instead of just being a work place and helping people, we have to think of their safety now – and ours, too.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.