The Old Guilford County Court House in downtown Greensboro – the nerve center of Guilford County government that houses the county manager’s office and many key departments – is getting an armed security officer at the entrance to protect the court house during all hours of operation, and soon all visitors to the building may be required to sign in.

Guilford County may also limit the entrances in the building and install bulletproof panels in front of the county commissioners’ seats to offer them protection if a shooter does make it into the commissioners’ second-floor meeting room.

After holding a two-hour closed session at the board’s Thursday, July 19 meeting, the commissioners came back into open session and voted unanimously to add the new position as part of what’s clearly going to be a radical security upgrade at the Old Court House.

The commissioners had no public discussion at the meeting before the vote; however, after the meeting, they said the moves were being made in response to major concerns in and around the building at 301 W. Market St.

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said that in light of some recent threats made against county department heads, combative incidents that have occurred at the courthouse and the vitriol and profanity with which some speakers from the floor have addressed the commissioners at meetings this year, the move was a necessity.

Branson said recent mass shootings nationally have also emphasized the need to make the changes.

“It’s just the state of the world that we live in,” Branson said.

He added that in other places – like the county’s human services buildings in High Point and Greensboro – the county had added armed officers and those moves significantly decreased the number of problems encountered there.

He also said there’s a discussion of increasing the number of security cameras and decreasing the number of entrances – in particular, closing the entrances, perhaps securing those on the two sides.

Branson said “more aggressive” homeless people have created some very problematic incidents at the courthouse, which is near the center of downtown Greensboro.

“It is an issue that we have had with homeless folks,” Branson said of one reason for the changes.

“It’s becoming more of a county problem,” he said, adding that he’s seen a great increase in the homeless population in places such as the Stony Creek area in eastern Guilford County as well as in downtown Greensboro.

One county official who asked not to be identified said there had been an increasing number of incidents with homeless people in the Old Court House. That official said one high-ranking county employee had gone into the women’s restroom in the Old Court House one morning and encountered a nude woman bathing at the sink.

Other county officials said that people who appeared dangerous were coming in to the building more frequently than in previous years.

In recent years, Guilford County has had an unarmed security guard who sat at the front desk most of the day – though county officials now want the protection of a full-time armed county security guard.

The new hire should be in place in about six to eight weeks.

Commissioner Skip Alston said this is a much needed move.

“There’s too much open access,” Alston said, adding that, in addition to the new armed guard, the next step may be requiring people to sign in.

“We’re thinking about that,” Alston said.

In one scenario, visitors might have to state their business, such as inform the officer at the entrance if they have an appointment with a county employee in the building.

Alston said that, during the July 19 closed session, he brought up stories of the late E.H. Hennis – who was a resident of southeastern Guilford County and had a long running feud with the county. Hennis once brought a device that looked like a bomb to the commissioners meeting.

“Another thing we’re looking at is bullet-proofing the dais.” Alston said.

He said that, if there were a shooter in the meeting room, the commissioners would then be able to duck behind the dais, which would offer some protection.

Alston said that right now there’s zero protection. The current wood paneling wouldn’t stop a bullet.

“We’d be sitting ducks,” Alston said. “We’d have nowhere to go,”

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said that many newly constructed government meeting rooms have a bulletproof dais built in as a general practice. Lawing said the move would mean relocating some of the electronics now wired into the dais.

The Greensboro City Council has had a bulletproof dais for years

When Alston was asked what the county was doing for the reporters who would still be highly vulnerable to an attack, he said, “Well, we have to set our priorities – you would need to take one for the team.”

On that same question, Branson said, “The sheriff may have an old vest you could have.”