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

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