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The Best Possible Security: Court Security Committees Critical to Safety

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"I consider the safety and welfare of everyone who works in the United States courthouses of our district, and everyone who walks in the doors of our courthouses, to be my top priority," said Chief Judge James Holderman (N.D. Ill.), head of his district's court security committee. "You can't provide justice when people are scared."

Court security committees (CSCs) exist to address districts' security concerns. Although the assumption might be that CSCs sprang up after 9-11, their inception actually dates back 30 years.

"The establishment of a court security committee in each district was a cornerstone recommendation of the 1982 Report of the Attorney General's Task Force on Court Security, which was endorsed by the Judicial Conference," said Judge Nancy F. Atlas, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Security.

The CSC's original charter was to meet regularly to review the status of existing security, discuss new or changing requirements generated by renovations or new offices, and resolve conflicts or competing requirements for limited security resources available to the districts. In September 2007 the Judicial Conference approved, upon recommendation of this Committee, the additional responsibility for "ensuring oversight of the court's emergency preparedness program." For those courts without remote detention committees, in 2012, the Conference encouraged CSCs to add remote detention of defendants to their list of CSC duties.

"At its March 2012 session, the Judicial Conference, upon the recommendation of the Judicial Security Committee, expanded the membership of the court security committees to include members from all courts/court units housed within the district," said Atlas. "In addition, the Committee refined a 'checklist' of duties for CSCs to help guide their work."

"I consider the safety and welfare of everyone who works in the United States courthouses of our district, and everyone who walks in the doors of our courthouses, to be my top priority."

—Chief Judge James Holderman (N.D. Ill.)

In the Southern District of Florida, Judge Jose E. Martinez was tapped by his chief judge to head the district's CSC. Lately, his committee—which includes the clerk of court, representatives from each court building, the General Services Administration and the district U.S. Marshals Service—has been particularly active. Occupy America set up camp a half block away from a courthouse and demonstrators have protested outside of the district's courthouses. It keeps the CSC on its toes reviewing security planning with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Recently the district's committee was consulted by the warden of the federal detention center just across the street from a district courthouse who wanted to conduct a blood drive. The event would involve parking a large vehicle between the buildings, "which is not so terrific from a security point of view," said Martinez. "But it's a good cause. So we worked with the Marshals Service to secure the area."

The CSC also helped resolve a question of security inside the courthouse. "No cell phones are permitted in our courts," said Martinez. "And that's a real problem because we'd have attorneys from out of town, unaware of the policy and with no place to leave their phones." The CSC discussed and then changed the rule to permit members of the bar admitted to practice in the court, to bring a cell phone into the courthouse.

Similarly, the CSC in the Southern District of Indiana recently imposed a restriction on members of the public bringing beverages into all courthouses in the district. "There was a growing concern that people could bring in volatile liquids, but any restriction would constitute a big change in policy," said Clerk of Court Laura Briggs, who sits on the district's CSC. Briggs raised the issue with the courts' judges, who referred the matter to the district's CSC for consideration. After study, the Committee was fully in favor of the beverage restriction, which went into effect on March 1.

"It really does take time to think through how we would respond in an emergency. Every time we run these drills, we learn something new."

—Allen Leslein

Briggs is assisted by Doria Lynch, administrative specialist for the Southern District of Indiana, with another of a CSC's responsibilities: emergency preparedness. "The way we look at it, security and preparedness go hand in hand," said Lynch. She regularly updates the district's Continuity of Operations (COOP) and Occupant Emergency Plans (OEP) with the district's CSC and has organized numerous tests, training opportunities, and exercises for the district. Recent activities have included earthquake and tornado drills, along with active shooter training—how to react if a shooter were to enter a courthouse. The CSC also is looking at the need to have staff certified in first aid and the use of automated external defibrillators.

This summer, Lynch will facilitate a cyber-threat COOP exercise for the Southern District of New York. "Doria will be able to take what she learns from New York's exercise and bring it back here for our COOP exercise this fall," said Briggs.

At the national level, the Committee on Judicial Security strongly urges all CSCs to regularly discuss COOP and OEP plans.

Architect Allen Leslein works closely with the CSC in the Central District of California where the committee also is heavily involved in emergency preparedness.

"We have to be ready—and this is a coordinated effort on the part of the court and all the members of the court security committee."

—Chief Judge James Holderman (N.D. Ill.)

"Probably our most public components are our floor wardens," said Leslein. "Every year we train our floor wardens on building evacuations and general emergency procedures. We also have training components on bombs, suspicious packages, and earthquakes. We just developed protocols and training for an active shooter exercise." Drills are held on a regular basis. Said Leslein, "It really does take time to think through how we would respond in an emergency. Every time we run these drills, we learn something new."

This month, Chief Judge Holderman in Chicago only had to look out at the courthouse plaza to see a good reason to keep the district's COOP plan up to date. Protests were expected there during the NATO summit. "It was the court security committee's decision that we should continue business as usual," said Holderman. "We have to be ready—and this is a coordinated effort on the part of the court and all the members of the court security committee—to deal with any arrests that may result and any other conduct."

Concerns over the NATO protests were brought to the CSC so that every agency and organization involved in providing security would be aware of what other agencies were doing and could work together. Preparations began over a year ago with communications between the CSC, court security personnel, and local first responders.

Holderman aptly summarizes CSCs nationwide when describing his own court committee: "The Court Security Committee is a group effort to provide the best possible security for the people who enter the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago."

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