Courthouse security gets spotlighted by the media after an incident occurs, but are courts making sure that security shines even when reporters aren’t looking?
Imagine this: A courthouse security control room is staffed by two officers, one of whom is also an emergency medical technician (EMT). One morning, an altercation occurs in another part of the courthouse, and a prisoner is injured. Sheriff’s deputies assigned to guard these prisoners summon the EMT, who leaves the control room.
Shortly thereafter, a supervisor asks the second officer to leave the control room to get her breakfast, not an unusual request; no one realizes that the control room is now without staff.
Another deputy, transporting a handcuffed defendant to court, arrives at the control room, finds it empty, and uses a key to enter the holding cell area. She also uses a key to unlock a gun box, where she deposits her gun.
The observant prisoner attacks his guard, takes the keys along with the deputy’s gun and radio, changes into street clothes, and enters the courtroom for his trial. He holds more than a dozen people hostage. He opens fire, killing a judge and a court reporter, while alarms that had been triggered in the judge’s chambers are ignored due to frequent false alarms.
After fleeing the courthouse, the prisoner continues to wreak havoc, fatally shooting another sheriff’s deputy and a federal agent before being apprehended in a manhunt that spans five states.
As improbable as this scenario sounds, it’s not fiction. It’s what the investigating commission pieced together as the likely sequence of events that occurred when Brian Nichols went on his alleged rampage at Atlanta’s Fulton County Courthouse on March 11, 2005.
The incident is but one of a number of high-profile shootings on courthouse property that have made headlines in recent years. Each time, the media shine a spotlight on the state of courthouse security nationwide. The real question is whether courthouses are getting the message—that security has to shine even when not in the media spotlight.
“Atlanta was an impetus for everyone to look at their court systems,” says Gregory Sanders, CPP, headquarters security advisor for the United Nations Development Programme and a member of the ASIS International Crime and Loss Prevention Council. Sanders, who previously managed security for the New Jersey supreme and appellate courts, notes that communities with adequate financial resources have revamped programs, “but it definitely takes newsworthy events to cause significant change.”
The potential for violence is high in both federal and state courts. “It’s an emotionally charged environment,” says Drew Levine, president, security services division, Wackenhut Corporation. “Rarely are people there for good news.”
Given that the threat is not likely to abate, what is being done?
Federal Court Security
At the federal level, the U. S. Marshals Service (USMS) is responsible for judicial and court security in 94 federal judicial districts and the District of Columbia Superior Court. The USMS resources have to serve about 2,000 judges plus other court officials at more than 400 court facilities throughout the nation.
More than 3,000 deputy marshals direct activities at the district offices. They carry out USMS standards that include guidance on court security technology and staffing.
Technology. The Judicial Security Systems (JSS) division at the Marshals Service headquarters is responsible for the complex perimeter security, access control, CCTV, and alarms used to protect court personnel and facilities. All entrances are equipped with weapons-screening stations using walk-through and handheld detectors and other equipment designed to detect illegal substances.
After 9-11, physical security surveys were conducted by JSS at all federal courthouse buildings. Upgrades were added where needed based on the existing technology at the site. New equipment included vehicles barriers, exterior cameras, and emergency operations equipment.
In addition, the position of judicial security inspector was created in all 94 districts. This person is the security specialist for the district and performs annual security surveys. As a result, further upgrades are in the works, to include a communications system that integrates court security officers and marshals with a security control center.
Staffing. The judicial security inspector is responsible for protecting the members of the judiciary and other court employees as well as jurors, attorneys, and citizens visiting the courthouse. These duties are carried out by contract court security officers. These officers operate entryway screening equipment and control access. Currently, more than 4,500 of these armed officers are deployed at federal court facilities throughout the United States and its territories.
The number of security officers per district is based on a formula established by the USMS. It is based on factors such as the hours of the court’s operation and the number of entrances. As needs change—if another judge is added to the district, for example—additional security officers are assigned to that location.
Security officers must meet background, physical, medical, and weapons qualifications standards. Every security officer “is required to have been a fully commissioned law enforcement officer for at least three years,” says Daya Khalsa, senior vice president, Akal Security. The company signed its first contract with USMS in 1992 and now supplies court security officers in nine of twelve judicial circuits.
The salary of these officers, determined by the U. S. Department of Labor, is “often as high as $50,000 to $60,000 a year,” says Khalsa. As a result, turnover is low. Officers “feel that they are in a professional position that has respect and upward mobility,” he says.
Security officers are deputy marshals while they are on the job. While USMS deputies detain perpetrators and make arrests, the court security officer “is empowered to bridge the gap between security and law enforcement when necessary,” says Khalsa.
Training of the officers is handled jointly by the contractor and the Marshals Service. The core training programs have not changed despite courtroom incidents in the news, says Khalsa. “We work these incidents into our training, the lessons learned,” he says.
According to Tom Roberts, Jr., CPP, who serves as U. S. marshal for the southern district of Georgia, up to 20 sheriff’s deputies and 30 security officers routinely handle functions for the six federal courthouses in his district.
The numbers are not as high as they have been in the past, because of other demands on the Marshals Service. Deputy marshals are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq to help set up their ministries of justice, prepare standards, and determine training schedules, says Roberts. And about 200 marshals were provided to the southeastern United States after Hurricane Katrina.
High-risk trials. The level of protection also varies according to what is scheduled in a given district or courtroom. Recently, the USMS oversaw security for several high-profile cases such as the trial of Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling in Houston, Texas, and the trial of al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in Alexandria, Virginia.
“When we have high-risk trials, we coordinate with the judge and with headquarters,” says Roberts. “Everyone is focused on that trial.”
The marshal, the deputy marshals, and the judicial security inspector specify the number of additional deputies and the type of electronic equipment needed for the trial. They also map out how prisoners will be transported and housed, and make provisions for securing the jury and arranging for their living needs should the members be sequestered.
In trials expected to attract large crowds, court security officers might be asked to support deputy marshals in courtroom security, acting as a type of bailiff, says Khalsa. The officers might also be stationed in specific hallways, asked to protect entrances to judge’s chambers, or assigned to patrol the perimeter of the courthouse.
In these cases, funding for security is available from headquarters as needed, says Roberts, an enviable situation not shared by those charged with security in lower courts.
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..