A bomb threat Monday underscores the need for vigilance in Luzerne County government buildings, officials said.
“Unfortunately, this is a different world we live in today. We have to take every threat seriously,” county Manager C. David Pedri said after three evacuated county buildings were cleared by authorities. “Security is a priority.”
A little over a year ago, in March 2017, a firebombing at the county Children and Youth offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilkes-Barre had sparked more focus on security in county buildings. Plains Township resident Philip Finn was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly causing malicious damage to the property by fire and is awaiting adjudication.
In the wake of that fire, which was quickly extinguished without injuries, the county reinforced a 2015 policy that all non-employee visitors to county buildings must go through metal detectors, including lawyers, the media, off-duty police officers and food and package delivery workers.
The county also enacted a new policy requiring all employees to show their security badges when entering county buildings and deactivated more than 100 access cards held by prior employees, title searchers, attorneys and other regular visitors.
Additional state funding was secured to add four new deputy sheriffs stationed at Children and Youth and other human service departments in 2018.
County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky said he’s been working with the sheriff and other county administration representatives for years to beef up security while balancing the need for public access.
Life-altering decisions are reached in county buildings involving child support payments and custody, divorces, estates, jail sentences and tax sales and mortgage foreclosure actions that result in property loss, Shucosky said.
“These are often very volatile situations,” Shucosky said.
As part of this push, the county enacted an evacuation plan that resulted in the “orderly and quick removal” of workers and the public to safe areas Monday, Shucosky said. Certain employees are assigned to coordinate evacuations and obtain counts of people removed, he said.
Protocols and training also increased when the county sheriff assumed oversight of county security guards in 2016, officials said.
Sheriff’s deputies provide security inside courtrooms, while security guards man the entrances to county buildings.
The deputies carry guns and are called to assist and “take whatever action is necessary” to handle incidents that arise at all county security posts, officials have said.
Security guards started carrying pepper spray, expandable batons and handcuffs last year, officials said.
More must be done, officials said.
As security guards retire or resign, those vacant positions now will be filled with sheriff deputies, said county Administrative Services Division Head David Parsnik.
“We’ve identified a need for more sheriff deputies,” Pedri added.
A county council majority recently earmarked an additional $150,000 needed to reconfigure the courthouse basement entrance to improve security screening.
The administration also continues to review options for more security cameras to monitor and record people in and around several county buildings. Funding for that project has not been publicly identified or requested.
Pennsylvania officials pushed for increased security at county domestic relations offices largely due to a 2013 shooting in Delaware, in which 68-year-old Thomas Matusiewicz shot and killed his former daughter-in-law and her friend in a courthouse lobby as they arrived for a child-support hearing involving his son. Matusiewicz then shot it out with police before taking his own life, reports said.
Most of the 16 magisterial court offices and the county domestic relations office reception area in the Bernard C. Brominski Building on North Street in Wilkes-Barre have bullet-resistant barriers inside, court officials have said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.