In the criminal justice system, providing security for law enforcement, courtroom personnel, and crime victims is always front and center. But over time, the threats faced by those involved in the legal system change.
Those changes, along with York County’s growing needs, have led to plans to renovate the sprawling Moss Justice Center, which houses courtroom facilities, prosecutors’ and records offices, the sheriff’s headquarters as well as the county detention center. All of those government offices are accessible from one long hallway with multiple doors open to the public. That’s raising concerns about the center’s security.
“Moss was built at a different time, when people were not thinking of safety as the priority,” said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. “Since then, we’ve had a number of incidents of violence in courthouses around the country, and that issue has come front and center.”
In 2001, Michael Sean Godfrey shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her grandmother in the Moss Justice Center parking lot, just yards from the front lobby of the county courtrooms. Witnesses said Godfrey had been inside the Moss Center shortly before the killings, according to Clerk of Court David Hamilton, but Hamilton doesn’t know of Godfrey had a weapon while inside the building.
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“This place was built pre-9/11. Things were not as bad back then,” Hamilton said. “It was designed more for flow and aesthetics.”
Renovating and expanding the 30-year-old building will be included in a proposed $89.7 million referendum to be held in November. York County Council is scheduled to give its final approval to the referendum at its Monday meeting. Renovations at the Moss Justice Center is just one project being considered for the bond package.
$89,769,762 total amount of proposed spending on York County buildings
Other projects on the list include a new family court building and other renovations to the county office complex on Heckle Boulevard in Rock Hill; a new recycling center; and improvements to facilities for the Clover and Fort Mill magistrates’ offices.
But the largest single project on the list is the expansion at the Moss Justice Center, which would cost $38.5 million. If approved by the voters, the bond will pay to construct new office space as well as an additional courtroom onto the Moss Center.
“It was designed to meet our needs in the ’80s, when the county had half the population,” Brackett said. “We are at capacity.”
The solicitor’s office now has three attorneys working out of office space designed for one, and has lost one of two conference rooms to create more office space.
The problem has gotten so bad, Brackett has had to send some of his diversion program staff, including drug court and pre-trial intervention personnel, off-site to a rented office space in a store front a mile away.
“I had to ask which unit doesn’t need direct access to the courthouse,” he said.
The sheriff’s office is in a similar bind in its portion of the Moss Center, where some key pieces of evidence have to be stored off-site because of a lack of space.
“This will at least double our storage area,” Sheriff Bruce Bryant said of the proposal.
Feeling boxed in at Moss, Bryant has had to house some staff in his Office of Professional Standards at the law enforcement training center, which can make handling personnel issues more difficult.
“We’d rather have them at Moss, especially for disciplinary actions,” Bryant said.
$38,535,036 proposed cost of expansion and new security measures at Moss Justice Center
But security is one of the main concerns for those who work inside Moss or visit the facility regularly.
“There are so many entrances, we can’t scan them all,” Hamilton said. “You can’t get upstairs (where judges’ chambers and prosecutors’ offices are located) without a pass key... but on the first floor, you can basically walk from one end of the building to the other.”
The solicitor wouldn’t disclose specifics, but said he worries that with such an open floor plan, “there are a few ways you can get in here with a gun,” Brackett said.
Under the new plan, foot traffic will be directed through one secured entrance to the building, which will allow sheriff’s deputies to better monitor who comes into the courtroom facility and what they may be carrying.
Other doorways will become emergency fire exits, Hamilton said, inaccessible from the outside. New security cameras will be installed to make sure no one opens the door after they are admitted to the building to let anyone else in.
“We want to have one central location where we can put security devices and X-rays, and we need the space to properly bring everybody in,” Bryant said.
With only one entrance to the Moss complex, “if you want to go into the sheriff’s office or the clerk of court’s office, you’ll get checked to go into any of those.”
Whatever new features the renovated building might employ, the county is sure to continue to grow, and any changes will have to take that into account. Brackett hopes that, unlike the existing building, the new wing of the Moss Center will include room for growth. Portions of the building could be constructed with “bare concrete walls and floors, with no carpet or paint or wiring.” That way, “in 10 years, when we move again, we can move into the unfinished space.”
Items on the proposed York County facilities bond referendum:
Heckle Boulevard office complex renovations
▪ New Family Court facility: $20,714,362
▪ Renovation of existing offices: $5,561,513
Renovations to the Moss Justice Center in York, including new courtroom and sheriff’s office space and security measures.
Public works improvements, including a new recycling center
Improvements to magistrate’s offices
▪ Fort Mill magistrate: $2,137,926
▪ Clover magistrate: $565,429
TOTAL OF ALL PROJECTS: $89,769,762