San Diego

Sheriff's Document Reveals Escape Risk at New County Courthouse

Sheriff Blames Design Flaw in New Building

San Diego’s new downtown courthouse -- scheduled to open July 17 -- is plagued by a serious security problem that could allow dangerous criminals to escape through the courthouse front door.

The problem is detailed in a document written by the Sheriff’s department and a top county official, who asked the state for an extra $3 million a year for added security throughout the new building.

The January 2016 document, obtained this week by NBC 7 Investigates, reveals there is no effort currently being made to eliminate or reduce the major risk factors for an inmate escape on the building’s ground floor.

According to the Sheriff, the public entrance and exit to the new 22-story courthouse are located very close to two felony arraignment courtrooms, which “presents an increased security risk for a successful escape of in-custody prisoners charged with serious felony crimes.”

The document also said that the courtroom doors can’t be locked to help prevent an escape, due to the city’s fire code, which requires those doors to to remain unlocked so the public and court personnel can get out of the courtrooms quickly in an emergency.

If prisoners were to escape from the courtroom, the Sheriff warned that deputies stationed at the building’s entry and exit would not see them flee the building, because a wall will block their view.

“Due to the close proximity of these (felony arraignment) courtrooms to the front exit, there would not be sufficient time to seal off the exit should an escape be attempted,” the report states.

Despite the escape threat, the Sheriff did not ask the state to provide money for deputies to guard that specific area. “Even though there is a higher potential of escape… the Sheriff’s Department is not requesting additional staff for this purpose.”

A Sheriff’s department spokesman declined to comment for this story, and would not explain why his department is not seeking additional staff or building alterations to minimize the escape risk on the first floor. The spokesman said the department will not discuss specific security issues at the new courthouse.

But Superior Court Judge Tony Maino, who has criticized the design and financial management of the $555 million courthouse project, told NBC 7 Investigates the escape threat is a serious challenge for security.

“This is worse than shocking,” Maino said. “It is another example of gross incompetence by the architects of this building.”

The Sheriff’s document also takes a swipe at the design and planning process, which was supervised by the state Judicial Council and paid for with funds administered by the Council. The Sheriff’s report notes that the section of the building in question was “...designed by the new Central Courthouse architect without Sheriff’s Department input.”

A spokesman for the Judicial Council disagreed, “Sheriff staff is included in all space programming meetings for the screening and holding areas,” the spokesman said in a written statement. “They have direct input on the number and type of holding cells, screening stations, and support areas.”

The spokesman also said the Sheriff’s staffs are included in all design meetings and worked with project architects on the design of all Sheriff’s department work spaces in new courthouses throughout the state..

See the Judicial Council’s full response here.

Overall, the Sheriff said he needs at total of 33 additional community services officers, deputy sheriffs and Sheriff’s Sergeants to provide extra security throughout the new courthouse. Salary and benefits for those officers is $3.2 million dollars a year, and increases annually with inflation and pay raises. There’s also a one-time, $453,000 cost for “start-up supplies.”

The Sheriff has asked the Department of Finance to pay those costs with money from the state’s general fund. Though the request for funds was made more than a year ago, the finance department still has the issue under consideration.

Meanwhile, with the courthouse opening in just three months, it’s unclear if the Sheriff has found another source of funding for the additional security.

A sheriff’s spokesman told NBC 7 Investigates that he’s researching that issue.

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