Hardening Security for Courthouse Buildings

Several states recently boosted their courthouse security measures for the first time in years – some in response to serious breaches.  Others are making upgrades just to stay ahead of the game. Either way, administrators recognize the critical need to protect citizens, employees, judges, and defendants in what can often become a volatile environment.

Take Tennessee, for example. The Administrative Office of the Courts launched a $2 million grant program last year to improve security at courthouses across the state. Security breaches, including one where an inmate shot two deputies at a Coffee County courthouse, compelled the state to make security upgrades for the first time in two decades.

Prior to the grant program, nearly half of Tennessee counties failed to meet minimum security standards. Now, courthouses will be equipped with panic buttons, bulletproof benches, armed guards during court sessions, hand-held metal detectors and more.

Other states and counties have followed suit. The Minnesota Supreme Court provided $1 million to bolster security at 57 of the state’s county courthouses. The awards have funded projects such as security screening stations, bullet-resistant glass at public service counters and staff security training.

In Morgan County, Alabama, the courthouse recently installed an X-ray inspection system to scan for drugs, bombs and metal objects. The facility also features new surveillance cameras and tempered security glass to protect employees.

Overall, these projects outfit existing facilities with much-needed upgrades, but hardening security in new courthouse buildings encompasses a much bigger scope.

Bulletproof Municipal Buildings

Security Guidelines for New Courthouse Buildings

Utah’s new federal courthouse in Salt Lake City opened in 2014 with separate entrances and elevators for judges, defendants and the public; bullet-resistant glass and paneling; and vehicle barricades. The architect designed more spacious courtrooms to let in tons of sunlight – all part of a design strategy to help keep court attendees calm, particularly in highly charged cases.

The overall design originates from a series of guidelines issued by the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts. Among its many design considerations, the guide addresses requirements for hardening both external and internal courthouse security.

Exterior Security Measures

  • Use of bollards, berms or other barriers to provide protection against vehicular attacks
  • Landscaping that doesn’t serve as a hiding place or obstruct sight lines
  • Sufficient lighting in parking areas and pedestrian entrances
  • Use of perimeter, parking lot and exit-door CCTV cameras connected to a command and control center
  • Separate vehicle circulation systems for judges, employees, prisoner transport and service
  • Restricted parking for judges with electronic access control
  • Parking areas for other court employees, jurors and visitors located next to the courthouse, fenced in and outfitted with electronic access control
  • Intrusion detection covering all perimeter doors
  • Chamber and courtroom windows sealed and glazed with UL 752, Level 4 bullet-resistant glass
  • Self-locking emergency doors equipped with remote alarms
  • Elevators or stairs from public or staff parking areas that direct people to a lobby with a security screening station
  • A single, secure public entrance for visitors and staff; a separate restricted entrance for judges; and a separate, secure entrance for supplies and services

Interior Security Measures

Security standards for interior spaces vary by room and location, and include requirements for access control devices on entryways, weapons screening, emergency lighting, duress alarms and CCTV. They also outline specifications for bullet-resistant materials, including:

  • Windows must not permit visual surveillance from exterior locations. UL 752, Level 4 ballistic-resistant glazing is required for exterior windows in all courtrooms unless the U.S. Marshal Service determines it is not needed.
  • The judge’s bench must be lined with UL 752, Level 3 ballistic-resistant material on all vertical surfaces.
  • Clerks’ offices located in facilities where weapons are screened at the entry must have break-resistant (UL 972) transaction windows. Clerks’ offices located in leased facilities where weapons screening is not conducted at the entrance must have a public counter with a UL 752, Level 3 ballistic-resistant transaction window.
  • Access doors and hardware between the public area and restricted office area should be UL 752, Level 3 ballistic resistant. In addition, surfaces within four feet of the counter must have ballistic-resistant surfaces from floor to ceiling.

From dangerous, convicted felons to citizens paying traffic tickets, people come to court confused, angry, upset, and frustrated. Those emotions can set the stage for security problems. Physical security features for courthouses will continue to be critical to protect the judges, law enforcement officers, employees and citizens that appear in court in America’s state, county and federal courthouses every day.

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