Making Courtrooms Safe: High Tech Protections
By Maurice “Mo” Boukelif
The prisoner that escaped from the Atlanta courtroom after killing the judge and three other people is a frightening example of the lack of safety in the nations courtrooms. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Courtroom violence is common. Threats against officers in federal courts occur about 700 times a year, according to the U.S. Marshalls Service. And that figure does not include state and municipal courts.
Protecting the judges, jurors, visitors and police officers is tough. However, it can be done. Especially now, we have some useful technology that has proven its effectiveness in other venues that can be applied in courtrooms around the country.
Though the events in Atlanta dramatically demonstrated the perils of the courtroom environment, in practice, protecting courtrooms is a much more encompassing job than merely making one room safe. As the Oklahoma City Courthouse bombing illustrated, the courthouse must be protected as well as the courtroom.
Courtroom safety is a multi-faceted challenge. The very fact of the prisoners presence in the courtroom for a trial or hearing presents several opportunities for violence and escapes. Every time a prisoner is being delivered to the courtroom or transported back to a cell, opportunities for violence abound. Moreover, incidents can occur because an unauthorized visitor penetrates the court building or the courtroom or enters another high security area in the court building.
Therefore, we need protection for the court building itself; we need to prevent the entrance of unauthorized visitors to high security locations in the court as well as ensuring the safety of judges, jurors, visitors and security guards in the courtroom as well as whenever a prisoner is being transported to or from the courtroom.
The best defense against violence in the courtroom itself is to keep the prisoner out of the courtroom. This may sound impossible and strange, but its not. We can substitute technology, if the state laws allow, to avoid bringing the prisoner physically present before the judge, jury and spectators.
Some courts today have video arraignment. In this way, the accused stays safely in the jail and is completely visible to everybody in the courtroom. Compudyne Corporations Tren Tech division has pioneered, the automated courtroom, which eliminates the risks of moving the accused to the courtroom and is accepted in many jurisdictions.
The way the automated courtroom works is that a camera in the accused cell or another secure area sends the picture to large video monitors in the courtroom. The sound is conveyed though the courtrooms sound system. The judge, defense attorney prosecutor and witnesses can see and hear the accuseds testimony simultaneously. The system can be designed to operate over LAN, WAN or ISDN facilities. Since many charges end up in plea bargaining, the avoidance of in-person arraignment means the accused may never need to go to the courtroom.
The automated courtroom saves the costs of assigning personnel to escort the accused to and from the courtroom. Many of our largest cities are physically moving as many as 6,000 or more prisoners every day for arraignments and other court proceedings. Every time a prisoner is moved, there is the cost of the move, the security risk during the move, and the security risk while the prisoner/defendant is in the courthouse.
Video arraignment is the first step in developing a truly automated courtroom in which there is automated evidence presentation. Entire trials can take place without the accused actually being present in the courtroom. It will take changes in legal regulations and perhaps difficult consent from the accused. Meanwhile, video arraignment is a major step forward; it improves security by eliminating the need for it and it reduces costs.
Another critical step to improve courtroom safety is to provide effective but non-intrusive physical barriers between the accused and the judge, witnesses and other key potential targets of the accused, such as jurors. For this protection, judicial benches and other barriers can be made out of bullet resistant materials, such as Norshields FibreShield, which is bullet-resistant fiberglass that can be incorporated into any structure. It is also possible to have bullet (and attacker) resistant glass dividers that separate the accused from the judges bench and the witness stand as well as the jurors box.
The best security during transportation of the accused is avoiding the need for transporting the prisoner at all by using video arraignment technology. Failing that, standard procedures for securing prisoners in transit are well known and difficult to improve upon. Under the best of circumstances transporting prisoners is an imperfect science. Every effort should be made to avoid transport for both security and cost reasons.
Another key point of vulnerability for courthouses is the visitors entry points. Many courthouses have methods of keeping unauthorized visitors out of the courthouse and of ensuring authorized visitors do not enter with weapons or explosives. Standard approaches include physical identification against photo identification, and electronic inspection machines.
While these safeguards are effective in barring entry to unauthorized visitors and keeping weapons out of the courthouse, they do not ensure that visitors do not enter higher security areas. More sophisticated technology, such as limited access badges, makes it impossible for lower level approved access visitors to get into higher security areas. One way to do this is to have interior doors equipped with automatic locking devices so that special access level cards are required to open the secured area doors.
Even more sophisticated are biometric identification for highly secure areas such as judges chambers.
Perhaps the most useful technology to consider is a central command and control station in which a guard monitors cameras in all parts of the facility, inside and out, and controls automatic locking devices and requests for assistance. The advantage of automatic locking devices is that if a visitor breaks through a security checkpoint, other areas of the courthouse can be remotely and temporarily locked down for further protection. In the Atlanta incident, the prisoner would not have escaped. Moreover, knowing that escape was not possible, the violence might have been avoided.
We have learned a lot about protecting courts from destruction or penetration from both Twin Towers attacks as well as other terrorist incidents and from protecting U.S. embassies around the world. The first rule is to keep unauthorized cars and trucks as far away from the courthouse building as possible since they can be used to transport bombs to the building.
Keeping trouble away from the courthouse door can be accomplished with a combination of bollards and pop-up security barriers, as well as decorative security planters. Windows and doors are other points of vulnerability. Therefore, ideally courthouses should be equipped with bullet and blast resistant windows and doors ideally at all levels. If vehicles cannot be kept away from the building, the first few floors should be fitted with Department of State-rated bullet and blast windows and doors.
Not surprisingly, making a multi-courtroom courthouse secure is expensive, especially when one is trying to protect an existing building. However, it is critically needed in todays dangerous world. Car bombs on the outside, dangerous weapons on the inside, and creative prisoners throughout the process, require continual vigilance. We can counter these threats; by harnessing modern technology, the solutions are available and very effective.
Editors Note: Maurice “Mo” Boukelif is the Chief Operating Officer of CompuDyne Corporation.