Q&A: Court security with author and expert Lt. Jimmie Barrett

Funding and awareness often central to the continued existence of security vulnerabilities at courts

In advance of next week's webinar on Securing America's Justice Courts and in light of yesterday's shootings at the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in Las Vegas, we caught up with Lt. Jimmie Barrett to discuss safety and security at our nation's courts. Barrett is the author of Protecting Court: A Practitioner's Guide to Court Security, and is the Court Security Supervisor for the Sheriff's Office of Arlington County, Va. He provides court security and judicial threat management training through the Virginia Center of Policing Innovation. Registration for his webinar with SecurityInfoWatch.com on Jan. 14, 2010, at 1 p.m. ET is free and currently open; the webinar will be archived.

Barrett's thoughts on the current state of security at our nation's court facilities appear below:

SIW: From what you have seen, are our nation's court facilities properly protected?

Barrett: In the broadest sense we are providing protection -- but there is significant room for improvement -- both in terms of funding and training. The type of protection provided to our courthouses varies widely. While some courthouses have elaborate security measures such as pop-up bollards, robust screening stations, secure underground parking, perimeter camera systems, and highly motivated security personnel, too many do not. There still exist numerous courthouses across the country, primarily at the state and local levels that do not even have a magnetometer and have parking lots where their judiciary park with the public.

Is the lack of protection that face many courts a product of lack of funding to implement proper security elements (deputies, technical security systems, etc.), or is this largely a problem of not enough education about how to protect courts?

It's truly a combination of both, with significant emphasis on poor funding. Financial funding has been lacking at all levels in our court system for security. The passage of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 went a long way in recognizing the need for proper funding for our courts, but it was primarily an act that focused on the federal system. More than ever and especially at the state and local level, agencies/offices have no choice but to aggressively seek grants, when available, and educate those financial stakeholders to the relevance of court security. It is well recognized within the court system that it is the state and local courts that do the "heavy lifting" in our justice system -- just in terms of case volume alone -- and yet they receive, in my opinion, very little funding given the volume of people that enter their facilities each year. In terms of education, in a security context, the state and local courts are doing the best they can, given the resources they are provided. But there really are very few places that one can turn to for qualified training in the area of court security. The U.S. Marshals Service, the National Sheriffs Association, the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation and a couple of other non-profit /private entities are attempting to fill the gap in court security education, but without dedicated funding for court security training and or a mandatory in-service program it is difficult at best for those charged with protecting our courts to stay current in the field.

You've written and spoken before about the complexities generated by the need to keep courts both "open" and "secure". Can you elaborate on this challenge and point to specific examples where this dichotomy comes to a point?

Our justice system is built upon the premise of transparency. It is the primary governmental branch that affords an individual the right to openly confront witness, face accusers, and literally observe all aspects of a trial with rare restrictions. However, this openness, as I have often stated, comes with significant challenges for the security professional.

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