State and Local Courts
State court security is generally overseen by local law enforcement, and in most communities, the sheriff is the primary security agent for the courthouse. But, “a sheriff has many responsibilities,” says Jim Ludolph, director of court security/civil process, Peoria (Illinois) County Courthouse. Typical duties include patrolling the county, conducting investigations, administering the jail, and securing a variety of felony, misdemeanor, and magistrate courts housed in new and old buildings.
Courthouse security must compete for funding along with the sheriff’s other priorities. Levine has found that county commissions understand the mission and rarely tinker with funding. “No one wants to see an article on their front page saying that lives were put at risk because they had to cut funding for something as important as court security,” he says.
In many locales, however, the county itself is facing financial hurdles either because of a shrinking tax base or a growing population that requires more services. In those cases, funding for courthouse security can receive short shrift because the sheriff’s budget allocation typically comes from tax revenue controlled by an elected county commission.
The current Fulton County sheriff, formerly a state trooper, had just been elected when the courthouse shooting mentioned earlier occurred. Today, “he’s got battles to wage in all directions,” says Richard Mecum, U.S. Marshall for the Northern District of Georgia, who headed the commission that studied the 2005 incident.
Among the commission were personnel specialists from the Georgia Department of Corrections who concluded that the courthouse staffing levels were 200 officers below what was needed. Long-standing turf battles between the former sheriff and the city council had stymied attempts to hire more staff.
Better management can make a significant difference in courthouse staffing, according to Leslie Cole, CPP, consultant and 2005 chair of the ASIS International Crime and Loss Prevention Council. Cole was brought in by a county in New Jersey that claimed the sheriff was spending too much on courthouse protection because of overtime—$2 million annually.
Cole visited six courts around the state and compared staffing levels and spending. He concluded that the overtime costs were the result of poor personnel management. He demonstrated how manpower could be reduced through a systems approach to security, which integrates hardware (such as CCTV, access control, alarms, lights, and a modern command center), software, procedures (such as clear post orders and directives), and people. “A lot of [security] preparedness is not expensive,” adds Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who serves on the Supreme Court of Ohio. He points out such procedures as limiting entrances.
Contracting. Another way communities supplement their courthouse security program is through contract security personnel. According to Levine from Wackenhut, typical assignments involve placing unarmed officers at entrances to screen for weapons and contraband using x-ray machines, magnetometers, and hand wands.
In some of the locations staffed by Wackenhut, officers become involved in prisoner movement. In one contract with the State of Florida, armed Wackenhut officers protect the 17 locations where workers’ compensation cases are heard.
Wackenhut staffs courthouse positions with candidates from the company’s custom protection officer (CPO) program. Persons in these positions come strictly from the military or are candidates holding law enforcement or criminal justice degrees. Because of their experience and the demands of the job, these officers typically can make as much as 25 percent more than an officer not in the CPO program.
Turnover, while significantly lower than for the industry in general, does occur because many court security officers move into law enforcement positions within the county after several years on the job, says Levine.
Training is a key factor in keeping the officers working at peak performance. In addition to preassignment, postassignment, and on-the-job training, Wackenhut spot checks the officers by placing contraband on a “visitor” in cooperation with the sheriff’s office or by having that person attempt to gain entrance riding in a wheelchair, pushing a baby carriage, or wearing a cast. “We want the officers to be aware not only of new weapons but also of new methods for getting into the environment,” says Levine.
The security officers rotate among the magnetometers, x-ray machines, and hand wands every two hours. “There’s a lot of pressure on the security officers,” says Levine. “The training, the rotations, the benefits are of great importance to make sure that these folks are operating well in a tough environment.”
Not everyone agrees that contract security officers have a place in state and local court systems. “The general rule around the country is that only law enforcement officers should be allowed to possess a gun in a courtroom,” says Fred Wilson, director of training for the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA). If entrance points are delegated to private security firms for economic reasons, “there should be a sworn officer available to respond,” he says.
Cole says, however, that certain tasks within a courthouse do not need to be staffed by a sheriff’s department officer making as much as $60,000 annually. His solution is for the agency responsible for courthouse security to recruit, train, equip, and supervise civilian employees for these jobs. “That way, we have control over them; the post orders and the training are ours,” he says.
States take various approaches to this issue. In Illinois, the state statute giving court security responsibilities to the sheriff was amended to create the position of court security officer similar to the position with that title at the USMS.
In Peoria, according to Ludolph, these positions are frequently assumed by correctional officers who are experienced in dealing with prisoners but who are not paid on a par with patrol officers. Peoria’s court security officers are armed and possess all the powers of a peace officer while on the job.
The square block comprising the courthouse complex “is our precinct, our jurisdiction,” says Ludolph. It may be a small precinct, but it is not necessarily a quiet one. “We make approximately 800 warrant arrests a year in this courthouse,” he says.
Access control. Regardless of who staffs court security positions, the primary function is controlling access. At a minimum, according to Wilson, every courthouse entrance should have magnetometers and x-ray machines. However, he notes that many do not, specifically in historic structures and in small counties that do not have the funds to install them or design retrofits.
Wilson notes that after 9-11 when the airlines turned their security over to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), some airlines, such as Delta and United, donated their old magnetometers to small courthouses. He hopes that as TSA replaces equipment at airports around the country, it will do the same.
Courts have implemented a number of procedures in addition to screening. In some cases, separate entrances have been established for employees, judges, law enforcement, and visitors.
Sanders and Cole favor establishing “sterile corridors” in courthouses similar to those in airports. “When you enter the building and go through the magnetometers, the rest of the courthouse is supposed to be sterile,” explains Cole.
Sanders takes the concept a step further and suggests that the sterile corridor should be extended to the possession of weapons by sworn law enforcement officers. “Weapons retention is the key,” he says. In his view, most weapons used in courthouse incidents are not brought to court but are taken from officers there to testify or protect patrons.
Who’s in charge? Another factor affecting state and local courthouse security is the number of stakeholders, some with competing agendas, jurisdictional boundaries, and access needs. In Broward County, Florida, according to Levine, “the sheriff and the chief judge work closely on how the facility will be protected.”
Mecum thinks the main driving force for security in the courthouse is often the judge, but that’s not necessarily the best approach, because security can’t be the judge’s main focus. Judge David Sentelle, who sits on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, agrees. Security “is never our primary concern,” he says. “Our primary concern is delivering justice in compliance with the law.”
Another issue is balancing the need for protection with the need for being open to the public. The courthouse generally is the place where a county’s official business is conducted by elected officials, including the county administrator, clerk of the court, registrar of deeds, and judges. Typically, these individuals want to be accessible to their constituents and are frequently averse to even locking their doors.
But security can encounter unexpected allies. In Peoria, where the courthouse employs more than 300 people, “the unions were one of our biggest supporters when we said we wanted to secure the entire building,” says Ludolph.
Other questions of authority can arise, such as who will make the decision to evacuate a courthouse. Judges typically are averse to halting a trial because of the risk that the court proceedings might become tainted. But emergencies do happen, and experts agree that the decision-making authority needs to be worked out in advance.
Continuous improvement. Because of the diversity of court systems at the state and local levels, the establishment of security standards for those courts, such as those set by the USMS, remains an elusive goal. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a nonprofit association based in Williamsburg, Virginia, has an extensive section on its Web site on court security, including a resource guide that courts can turn to for information, but they are not required to follow its precepts.
The NCSC, in junction with the National Sheriffs’ Association, convened a National Summit on Court Safety in 2005. According to Ohio’s Chief Justice Moyer, who chaired the summit, participants prepared “A National Strategic Plan for Judicial Branch Security” that included recommended strategies on topics such as promoting leadership, addressing education and training needs, providing technical assistance, and pursuing funding.
One recommendation addressed the need to develop a national database of general courtroom incidents, dangers, and violence. “There is no reportable database on these topics,” says Wilson of the NSA. He advocates adding a check box to a state’s standard crime reporting form indicating whether the crime was committed on courthouse premises. These forms are used by the FBI to publish its annual report on crime in the United States.
Anecdotally, sheriffs believe the potential for violence is greater in civil trials and in family court. But having real data, says Wilson, “would show how actual this problem is and how frequently it occurs.”
Concurrently, the Court Officers & Deputies Association (CODA), an association under the NSA umbrella, recently prepared its own court security resource guide, updating an NSA publication from the 1970s. The guide was approved at the summer CODA board meeting and is being submitted to NSA for approval and distribution.
According to Ludolph, a member of CODA’s board of directors, the guide discusses, for example, how to develop a training program and how to determine appropriate staffing levels depending on the size of the court facility.
Judge Moyer is also chairing another committee representing the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, both subgroups of the NCSC. This committee is developing a best practices manual based on advice from judicial associations and law enforcement agencies.
Judge Moyer admits that one document will probably never be accepted universally. But because the manual combines best practices from related associations with support from the Office of Victims on Crime, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, he hopes it “will be the document people look to as the last word.”
Cooperation among the stakeholders is essential if courtroom security is to improve and stay on top of the threats. “Even if you are only giving a person a citation, you want them to feel safe when they come to the courtroom,” says Guyden, Georgia, Police Chief Randy Alexander. Questions of right or wrong cannot be decided unless people come to court. “If they feel that it’s unsafe,” he adds, “then I’m not giving them a fair deal.”
High-profile incidents on courthouse property have shone a spotlight on courthouse security. But how courts at the state and federal level deal with this threat differs greatly.
At the federal level, the U. S. Marshals Service (USMS) is responsible for judicial and court security. The USMS has set standards that address both the technology and staffing used to protect court personnel and facilities. Since 9-11, new equipment, such as vehicle barriers and exterior cameras, has been added as needed.
At the local level, the sheriff is primarily responsible for court security, which must compete for funding along with the sheriff’s other priorities.
Because of the diversity of state and local courts, standards, such as those used by the USMS, remain elusive. Many groups are addressing this issue, including those representing judges, sheriffs, and other court officers
Mary Alice Davidson heads a publishing consultancy based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Formerly the director of communications for ASIS International, Davidson has written and edited numerous articles and books on security and management issues..