Deputy sheriffs at the Baltimore County circuit courthouse in Towson say their dwindling numbers and inability to hire new employees in the past four years has left them increasingly concerned about security.
Union leaders say the small agency is being ignored by the county.
"We're lucky we haven't had any major incidents," said Steve White, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 25, which represents more than 60 deputy sheriffs. The union says 11 deputies have left since 2010, and their positions have not been filled.
But county officials say the sheriff's office, like all county departments, is evaluated regularly for efficiency.
"Over the past year the administration has been conducting a best practices analysis of the office of the Sheriff to increase productivity and efficiency," county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler wrote in an email.
According to Kobler, the county now has the fewest general government employees in 25 years. "This is the way we run government in Baltimore County and it is what taxpayers expect," she wrote.
Kobler said the county is conducting a "comprehensive security analysis in the Circuit Court building" and is in the process of installing improved security cameras and other technology upgrades.
The union says additional technology goes only so far when it comes to physical disputes.
"We're a hands-on organization," White said. "We need bodies, not cameras."
Given the emotions that can arise during court proceedings, he said, there should be at least two deputies in each courtroom. But on a typical day, the union says, 40 percent of criminal proceedings are staffed by just one.
Court officials agree that there are challenges.
"Part of the problem is that this courthouse is very, very busy," State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said. "The workload in all aspects has increased, which has increased the need for security. It's not just in the criminal field."
The union says staffing shortages are also affecting warrant service. The number of warrants served by county deputies fell from 1,988 in 2012 to 1,664 in 2013, the union says, a 16 percent drop.
With at least 19 deputies eligible to retire come October, the union warns, staffing shortages could worsen.
"We're trying to ask, 'Is there a bottom line?' " said Charles Kish, the union treasurer. "At some point you've got to say you will dissolve the agency or hire."
Sheriff R. Jay Fisher said he is working with the county administration to fill three of six vacancies.
Fisher said the courthouse remains one of the safest in the country and gave credit to the deputies. He said it's important to deploy personnel effectively and efficiently, but allowed that, in general, "the more people you have doing the job, the safer your building is."
Kathleen Gallogly Cox, the Circuit Court administrative judge, said staffing shortages have become more pronounced now that some judicial vacancies have been filled, opening up more courtrooms.
"I know they are short-staffed," she said, but added that pulling deputies from other duties is not the solution.
"There are events that occur periodically where the need for good sheriff coverage is highlighted," she said. She cited a recent incident in which a defense attorney was struck by his client.
"We have a lot of people through here every day," she said. "We get a lot of people on domestic violence matters. You have to have good crowd control so incidents don't erupt."
A teenager stood trial recently on charges that he shot at a gang member. Prosecutors said his actions led to the death of county police officer.
For days, the teenager's family sat just a few feet from the dead officer's co-workers. But when the jury returned to deliver the verdict, only one deputy was available to maintain security.
"There were a lot of people in the courtroom," Shellenberger said. "In an occasion like that, you need extra security to make sure emotions don't erupt."
On a typical day in Baltimore City, Maj. Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper said, 85 deputies are deployed among two circuit courthouse buildings, which hold hearings at four family courts, 12 juvenile courts and 30 criminal courts, and other posts.
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