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

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.

This dichotomy can best been illustrated within the courtroom dynamic. The courtroom is a confined space with a mixture of individuals that usually do not wish to be present with one another. First you have a defendant/plaintiff (the accused), in or out of custody; then you may have public supporters of the victim and or defendant; next you have witnesses that will testify for one party or the other and attorneys that argue their version of the facts of a case, that usually will inflame one side or the other. This combustible mix is further made volatile with the knowledge that one party will "lose" and more than likely both parties will "lose" once a judgment occurs. At any time these parties can explode at one another, at the defendant, at witnesses, victim or the court (judge) and have done so as can be seen in the media. It is paramount that the security professional provides an open area for all to be present, and yet secure enough that all the parties in a courtroom setting can perform their functions without fear of attack or intimidation. This is done through a combination of professionalism, communicating expectations, and having the proper resources in place to respond should an incident occur.

For court managers and security leaders tasked with implementing court security, what do you think are the most significant sentinel events of recent decades that they should study as they seek to improve their court's security?

The year 2005 was without question a game changer for court security professionals. In that year we had the tragic killing of U.S. District Judge Lefkow's husband and mother in Chicago by one of her litigants at her home. Next was the killing of Judge Barnes in Atlanta by Brian Nichols, while Judge Barnes was sitting on the bench in an active court. Least known was the attempted poisoning of our U.S. Supreme Court Justices by a 60-year-old lady who mailed some cookies to the court.

The Lefkow incident amplified the need for our judiciary to have adequate security at their home and practice good home safety protocols as well as a strong judicial threat management program. As a direct result of that incident, the entire federal judiciary was the recipient of home security systems (Court Security Improvement Act of 2007), but our state and local judiciary were not recipients. The Atlanta incident pointedly demonstrated the need for robust security resources, both in terms of financial and in training staff. The cookie event drilled home the importance of mail screening.

The implications of not providing adequate study, training and resources extend far beyond just our local and national boundaries as recently occurred in Germany. On July 1, 2009 the violent killing of Egyptian citizen Marwa el-Sherbini in a German court of law tragically informed practitioners that a courthouse incident can cause significant international ramifications between countries. There were loud and strident protests in Cairo over the incident and caused both heads of state (Germany and Egypt) to focus on court security.

Finally, I will just mention that the explosion of social networks -- such as Facebook, private blogs and Twitter -- has facilitated online communications between parties of like thought. Not all of that thought is good and it can foster like-minded individuals to act irrationally. As such the court security practitioner must be more pro-active and engaged with the electronic network and not just the physical environments.

What are some innovative approaches to court security that you impressed you (whether via staffing, technical systems, building designs, or even innovative court handling processes)?

I actually think that one of the most innovate approaches to court security has been the paradigm shift in the thought processes of court security practitioners and realization by the judiciary that security must be a strong and viable partner to ensure a strong judicial branch. The initiatives by the USMS in providing court security fellowships for state and local officers charged with protecting courts and Project 365 (a project to bring awareness for the need of personal judicial security) have converged in elevating the professionalism of court security. Those initiatives, coupled with individual state programs such as Virginia's Judicial Security Initiative in providing court security assessments across the state, have revitalized the role and focus of court security. Court security was once only seen as an afterthought. Unfortunately, it has been repeatedly shown in our local newspapers that this can no longer continue. Protecting our courts is critical to not just our local communities but to our national fabric of justice and fairness.

Related content:
Webinar: Securing America's Justice Courts, Jan. 14, 2010, from SecurityInfoWatch.com with Lt. Jimmie Barrett