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Why the current state of court security is cause for concern

While everyone is acutely aware of the risks necessitating court security and the liability implications of security failures, actual progress toward security remains highly variable

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The courts are places where nothing ever happens until it does.

On a cool spring morning, a man was arrested in a small town courthouse in Bingham County, Idaho because he was carrying a concealed .38 revolver. Superficially, it seems like a mistake many Idahoans could make in a state with few limits on carrying a firearm.

Maybe he just forgot to take his sidearm off. Or, maybe alert court security personnel averted a disaster: the man in question was coming to court for a pre-trial conference on charges of felony first-degree stalking. Across the state line in Wyoming, judges sounded the alarm over increasing threats and violence in their courts, and asked for more security there, too.

The courts are places where nothing ever happens until it does. I learned that while living in three progressively more remote California counties, two of which had fatal courthouse shootings. One of those was the notorious Ellie Nesler case in 1993 when a mother killed her son’s accused molester in a tiny makeshift courtroom. Then in 2000, the defendant in a sex abuse case retrieved a small gun he’d hidden in the courthouse men’s room and used it to kill himself after shooting his accuser and her husband.

I marveled at how quickly scarce resources became abundant in the aftermath of those incidents. In both counties, security measures were immediately implemented, and the cases were used as evidence of the need for improved security in other rural California courthouses as well. With that in mind, I reached out to contacts at the Small and Rural Law Enforcement Executive Association (SRLEEA) to see how the court security environment appears in small-town America nowadays.

I spent time by phone with two sheriffs in rural counties in Kansas and Michigan, a major responsible for court security in Adams County, Mississippi, and another in Doña Ana County, New Mexico. (Doña Ana County fits within the rural/remote purview not by virtue of its population size but rather because of its enormous scale, with residents scattered over nearly 4,000 square miles and an overall population density of only 55 people per square mile.)

I discovered that, although everyone I spoke with is acutely aware of the risks necessitating court security and the liability implications of security failures, actual progress toward security remains highly variable. As expected, the smaller and poorer the setting, the fewer resources are devoted to securing the courts. Where obstacles remain, they fall primarily into the following four categories:

1. HISTORIC BUILDING DESIGN

In the past, courthouses weren’t built with security in mind but rather as the original multi-use facilities. They had lots of windows and doors, wide approaches, public meeting spaces and county offices from assessors to clerks to tax collectors, all under one roof. That was brilliant in a world before telephones or automobiles; now it’s a security nightmare.

Adams County Sheriff’s Major Stanley Searcy is responsible for court security in Natchez, Mississippi, a county seat of just under 14,000 residents. “Courthouse shootings around the nation heightened the need for security here,” he said. “Our courthouse was built in the 1800s, it’s historic. We’ve made modifications recently, but not all doors close properly and the windows aren’t tempered (glass). It makes security challenging.”

Brown County (Kansas) Sheriff John Merchant struggles with similar mismatches between modern security expectations and the design of his nearly century-old courthouse. The county’s website describes it as sitting “in the center of the public square” and it does, making the idea of secure parking an impossibility. The first two floors of the courthouse are filled with county offices and meeting rooms. All courtrooms and judges’ chambers are on the third floor – and the elevator is frequently inoperable. The pandemic made hearings via Zoom normal, thankfully, offering a workaround when the elderly lift won’t cooperate.

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Both Merchant and Searcy work with what they have to keep their courts safe. In Brown County, inmates walk to the courthouse escorted by a jailer with a TASER. If it’s a high-profile case, armed deputies join the escort. In Adams County, inmates are walked to court by two deputies. They use a different entrance from the general public, and when they leave, spectators in the courtrooms remain seated until the area is clear of both inmates and judges.

Management of entrances varies from county to county. In Doña Ana County, New Mexico everyone is screened at the single main entrance, according to Major Jon Day, who cites the sovereign citizen attack on Forsyth County’s courthouse in Georgia as a driver of their security policies.

In Adams County, Mississippi, Major Searcy says that everyone (including judges, attorneys and courts employees), is screened before entering the courthouse. In Brown County, where Sheriff Merchant noted that the court security plan was written not by him but by the county attorney, members of the public are screened, but courthouse staff, judges and their office personnel, and Kansas state employees with offices in the courthouse, are exempt. In Branch County, Michigan, Sheriff John Pollack has further strengthened the entrance to the courthouse with bollards for obstructing an attack with vehicles.

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2. TRADITION

Tradition isn’t dangerous until “we’ve always done it this way” gets in the way of needed change. In many smaller towns, the public and even some judges object to restricting access through a single entrance, and to security changes interpreted as “unwelcoming.” The perceived loss of a Mayberry atmosphere may seem not just saddening, but insulting. Employees and clients in multi-use historic buildings sometimes resent security screenings; prohibitions on guns, phones and other electronic devices; and the extra steps required when older entrances near the offices they’re using are locked.

In the many regions where “constitutional carry” is the norm, restrictions on carrying firearms into courthouses can generate strong feelings and pushback. Merchant felt this topic especially keenly. Five or six years ago, he said, there was no court security at all for the historic courthouse in the county seat of Hiawatha. When he saw “cases of concern” coming up, he approached county administrators who agreed it was time to secure the courthouse door. Part of that security was providing lockboxes inside the entrance, where visitors can store their legal firearms.

It was not a popular addition. “The public thought that wanting to secure the courthouse meant I was against the Second Amendment,” Merchant told me. “That was used against me in the last election. The rumor mill definitely affected the last campaign, but I handled that openly, and personally.” The sheriff talked in person with everyone he could, explaining the security plans along with plans to accommodate the legal possession of firearms – just not in the courthouse – and won the next election easily.

3. JUDGES

Since courthouse violence often targets judges, their support would seem like a given, but it’s not. Disputes arise from disagreements over the necessity for security measures, over expenditures and over control. Judges are elected; when they think security measures alienate voters, they often resist them.

As Day said, “It’s hard to find balance. The question is ‘What is the role of law enforcement in the courts?’ Judges often see officers as servants, as status symbols. Officers are there for security, and that is all. There have been judges who don’t want to cooperate with evacuations or drills.”

It’s a problem. John Thompson, vice president of SRLEEA, said that when he was assistant sheriff in Prince Georges County, Maryland, they had top-of-the-line security that was not used to its full potential in part because their judges simply didn’t want their hallway doors locked.

Designing and implementing security improvements requires mutual respect and a degree of diplomacy when two elected officials disagree. A sheriff or county commissioner may have codified responsibility for court security, but be unable to fully execute a plan without cooperation from judges.

4. BUDGETS

Budgets affect staffing, equipment and training. They dictate scheduling and response and rarely is the person in charge of court security also in charge of the funding.

Pollack saw drastic cuts in his department budget beginning in 2013. Twenty-three patrol deputies and four full-time court staffers turned into eight and one. Night patrols evaporated, along with full-time court security.

In 2016, a devastating shooting in a small town courthouse two hours away spotlighted vulnerabilities in Branch County; Pollack’s department could not respond without gutting his patrol staff. By the state constitution, he was required to provide security for the district courts, but a drastic pay reduction (from $23/hour to $16/hour) eroded the department’s ability to recruit and retain deputies.

Road officers were doing jail transports, taking them away from patrol duties. One deputy served as bailiff, but he couldn’t man the screening station at the courthouse entrance and also respond to disruptions in court. Pollack called up reserves and off-duty deputies to plug holes in coverage and called in favors from nearby police departments. The reserves were a force multiplier but required supervision by a full-time, certified officer.

“The county administrative officer did an evaluation for court security, but didn’t say how to pay for it,” Pollack said. “I always put in for extra men in every budget, for one reason: so I can say ‘Your Honor, you can see that I requested (this) every year, and was denied. I’m putting this responsibility back on you.’ You can’t be proactive when you’re short. Probably 40%-50% of the time, the courthouse entry is unsecured, and the citizenry knows it’s open. There have been threats, but no incidents so far. “

“I stay up nights asking, ‘What can I do better?’” Pollack said. “I have been in office for 10 years, and with this sheriff’s office for 35 years. It’s very difficult for small departments to provide the kind of court security that’s really needed. We operate on the fringes, hoping nothing happens, and that leaves a lot of angst for department heads.”

DOES THIS PUZZLE HAVE A SOLUTION?

My last conversation was with Thompson, who conducted 50 court security surveys over 10 years at the request of National Sheriff’s Association members. With a partner, he observed courthouse facilities a night before visiting and then attempted to evade security measures, reporting back with the results afterward. Often the reports were good. Other times, it was alarmingly simple to bypass even apparently tight security.

“Some courthouses had good resources, but no matter how tight, if we wanted to get in, we could get in,” Thompson said. “Once we took a real gun through a screening station in the bottom of a potted plant. The pot was metal, and we told the screeners it was a gift for one of the judges. We just handed it to them, walked through the magnetometers, and they handed it to us on the other side. Another courthouse had two entrances. We went to the back entrance dressed as phone repairmen, and we were not confronted. That time, we made it into jury assembly rooms and even the judge’s chambers. We left notes under chairs that said ‘this could have been a bomb’. “

One courthouse had cameras in every hallway and Thompson was sure they would be caught, but they weren’t. “There was one guy with 15 jobs to watch (the monitors), and he never had time to look,” Thompson said.

Does that mean court security is a hopeless proposition? Absolutely not. Something is always better than nothing, and in today’s litigious environment, a sincere (and well-documented) effort goes a long way to protect those with the responsibility to keep others safe. When you can’t do everything, begin with what’s easy and low-cost. Build up from there.

When entrances are restricted, communicate the reasons for that clearly to staffers, along with expectations and potential consequences (like losing access to a card key). Thompson found smokers to be a consistent security risk: they tended to leave doors cracked open on smoke breaks and sometimes allowed others to follow them back inside.

When parking for judges can’t be secured, at least don’t advertise the vulnerability. Thompson found several courthouses with judges’ names stenciled in their parking spots. “Use numbers!” he said. “They can still have their assigned parking space without telling everyone where to wait for them in the morning.”

Where cameras go unmonitored, bring in help from other departments. In Adams County, it’s not sheriff’s personnel but an IT tech who helps to monitor security cameras during the day and checks overnight footage for movement. Any eyeballs are better than none.

Establish relationships with every agency that can provide mutual aid, before it’s needed. Asking other nearby police departments to join in with measures like perimeter walks costs nothing but goodwill. Cultivate contacts who can loan officers for extra security on high-profile or multi-defendant cases.

Communicating security concerns and provisions to the public, clearly, consistently, and respectfully, helps break down resistance over time. No one likes surprises or inconveniences.

Don’t underestimate risks in civil cases. Emotions and tensions run high when the courts deal with money, family, homes, and businesses. In criminal cases, everyone already knows who the bad guy is; in civil cases, any player can reach a breaking point and become a threat.

Leverage the concerns of judges and court staff in the case for increased security, and ask them for help in seeking the resources that are needed.Judges have the option to speak openly to the press, and have even threatened to walk off the bench in unsafe conditions. That influence can be useful.

Finally, reach out to resources like the US Marshals Service, US Deputy Sheriff’s Association, National Sheriff’s Association and SRLEEA. All have free or low-cost help with security audits, site evaluations, training and grants.

As Thompson told me, society is reactive; it’s human nature. Some places will get ahead of threats, and others inevitably will wait for a crisis. The best any sheriff can do is identify that crisis, sound the warning and get to work getting ahead of it, one step at a time.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.
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