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Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper Archives Aug 29 2015, Page 4

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Winnipeg Free Press (Newspaper) - August 29, 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba < C M K PAGE A4 ¡ e ¡ ¡ A 4 WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, SATURDAY, AUGUST 29, 2015 TOP NEWS winnipegfreepress. com Security top priority at courthouse Vigilance key to countering flow of contraband By Mike Mc Inty re I T can be a place of high drama and raw emotion, where lives can change in an instant. Violent gang crimes. Messy divorces. Bitter custody battles. Brutal homicides. And so it is more than a little alarming to learn visitors to the downtown Winnipeg Law Courts complex have been caught attempting to bring nearly 1,600 pieces of contraband into the building during the past year. Most of these items were weapons — from tiny pocket knives, scissors and pepper spray to huge nunchuks, brass knuckles and even homemade devices such as a cue ball wrapped in duct tape. “ For many, many people attending to the courthouse, that is the unhappiest day of their lives. It’s not a jolly experience,” said Shauna Curtin, the assistant deputy justice minister, during an interview that included a display of a selection of the seized items. Those who work in the justice system have experienced several vivid reminders of the harsh reality of law and order recently. Earlier this year, courthouse workers across the province got a scare when packages began arriving through the mail containing a mysterious substance. It turned out to be harmless, part of a campaign by a disgruntled former Canadian now living in Hong Kong. Then there is the Guido Amsel case. The Winnipeg man is accused of sending bombs, through Canada Post, to his former lawyer, his ex- wife and his ex- wife’s former lawyer following a nasty divorce and civil court matter. Many have dubbed it an attack on the justice system. “ It’s a reminder that we can be vulnerable. ( Those incidents) created great concern and fear,” Curtin said Friday. “ If you don’t take it seriously, you’re creating additional vulnerabilities.” The incidents have led to a series of meetings in recent months where enhanced security features have been discussed and later implemented. This includes everything from mail screening to secure parking for justice officials. Specific details, of course, are being kept close to the vest. The greater vigilance has no doubt contributed to the discovery of contraband, although officials say the 1,600 items confiscated during the past fiscal year are just a small bump over previous years. Darcy Blackburn, executive director of provincial Sheriff Services, said the main perimeter screening that greets all visitors to the courthouse is clearly serving its purpose. “ Our staff have learned to read the situation. I think we’re really good at prevention. The objective is to provide a safe experience for everyone,” said Blackburn. “ We know that not everyone who comes through here is a criminal. We treat everybody with respect. We’re not here to judge anybody, we’re impartial.” Blackburn said it would be a mistake to assume most people trying to bring weapons into the courthouse had sinister intentions. She points to a recent case in which an elderly woman opened her bag during screening to reveal nunchuks. The senior was embarrassed, forgetting they were in there. She was carrying them for protection. “ A lot of people just have it in their pocket or purse and forget about it,” said Blackburn. Of course, the vast majority of people pass through the security checkpoint, which includes an X- ray machine, with no problems. In the past fiscal year, 258,000 visitors were screened. “ We have to balance that open- court principle with what we consider to be safe,” said Curtin. The security also involves screening all the inmates who are brought into the courthouse on a daily basis. Sources told the Free Press Traigo Andretti, the convicted killer who pleaded guilty this week to murdering a Winnipeg woman in 2006, was found to have a blade smuggled in his beard during one of his first court appearances last year. ( It’s not known if Andretti planned to harm others or simply himself — he was reportedly suicidal after confessing to murdering his wife in British Columbia in 2013.) There was also the notorious incident in a Brandon courtroom in 2003, when Robert Sand, who had just been convicted of murdering Manitoba RCMP Const. Dennis Strongquill, jumped out of the prisoner’s box and landed on top of his lawyer. During the melee, a razor blade he’d snuck into court fell out of his hands. Sand later told the Free Press in a jailhouse interview he’d hidden the weapon inside a deep cut he made on his own leg. Longtime justice officials still chuckle about a case in Winnipeg several years ago, when a man snuck a baggie of drugs into the courthouse, then threw it into the prisoner’s box to a man who was on trial — while court was in session. He was quickly arrested and charged. Sheriff’s officers do conduct regular “ sweeps” of both the interior and exterior of the building, where some people often try to stash illegal goods before entering. Years ago, a large garden outside the main doors was a frequent home for contraband. Now, in a bid to make the drops much more difficult, most of those plants are gone. “ We do get people who you see turn around and head out the door ( rather than get screened),” said Blackburn. There have been many instances in the past year where small amounts of drugs were seized — clearly the courthouse visitor forgot what was in their pocket. Curtin said it’s family court matters which often provide the biggest security challenge, as tempers can quickly flare in those situations. Sheriff’s officers are regularly parked in courtrooms for all child protection and custody matters. There are also a growing number of organized crime cases, including police investigative projects using paid informants, which have required enhanced security. This typically involves secondary screening outside the specific courtroom, including a metal detector and pat- down searches. Those caught with contraband are usually detained and held for police — the exception being those with innocent explanations. The bottom line: Be more vigilant about what you’re bringing with you when you head down to the courthouse. “ It’s not only a situation where it can be a risk from you, but a risk for others as well,” said Curtin. www. mikeoncrime. com ‘ Our staff have learned to read the situation. I think we’re really good at prevention. 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