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Concerned citizens hold panel discussing courthouse annex

BY RACHEL GREEN | OCTOBER 15, 2014 5:00 AM

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As Election Day draws near, locals are continuing the debate surrounding the proposed Johnson County Courthouse annex, which will be on the ballot Nov. 4.

Some community members have spoken out against the addition, calling for reform in the Johnson County justice system to take precedence over a new building.

This issue was brought up Tuesday night at a panel discussion titled “Inside Johnson County’s Justice System,” sponsored by Free Johnson County.

“When you bring up racial disparity, people don’t want to talk about it,” Free Johnson County member Martha Hampel said. “I’m heartbroken that we live in in an area with that attitude.”

The proposed annex would be built onto the current courthouse to provide better security measures and create additional space for courtrooms, offices, and holding cells, among other necessities.

The group includes citizens from across the county who are concerned about the courthouse-bond referendum. They also advocated for a “no” vote the last time the bond referendum — which included a new jail —  was on the ballot.

Locals who attended the meeting expressed concern about minorities and the justice system, the delay in trials in Johnson County, and the militarization of local police in local areas and across the nation, with a large focus on ethnic disparity.

Panel member Robert Smith said it was a “shame” that some African-Americans in Johnson County live in fear of the police.

“Police will patrol black neighborhoods looking for excuses to arrest people,” he said.

Militarization of local police forces was also discussed at the meeting, with the example of police officers having tear gas and the Sheriff’s Office owning a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle.

Hampel called for a change in police action, saying she did not believe children could see police with an intimidating vehicle and SWAT uniforms as saving them.

“I’m worried about the future of our police, and I’m worried about future generations,” she said.

Free Johnson County Director Sean Curtin said more focus needs to be brought to these issues in relation to the courthouse annex.

“People might ask how racial disparity or how the [armored vehicle the county owns] pertains to the courthouse annex, but it’s all interrelated,” he said. “The proposed courthouse has a jail connection that could be utilized for the future, which the bond referendum isn’t paying for.”

Members of Free Johnson County expressed opposition to the proposed additions to the original courthouse at the meeting, as they first want to see reform and improvements made in the justice systems in Johnson County as the biggest priority in the district.

“All I want to see happen is justice for the citizens,” Smith said. “I believe voting yes for the courthouse will lead to defeat in a battle the citizens definitely need to win.”


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