Courthouse Assessments in Virginia

There are few fundamental rights in our nation as cherished as that of free and open access to our judicial system. The expectation and reality of judicial security, both inside and outside the courtroom and courthouse, is integral to fulfilling our justice systems promise of transparency, access, impartiality, and right to a fair trial. In light of past and recent courthouse and courtroom disturbance i.e. the murders of Fulton County Judge Rowland Barnes and Deputy Sheriff Sergeant Teasley and Tyler courthouse shooting incident in which David Hernandez Arroyo Sr. killed his ex-wife and son in front of the Smith County Courthouse in Tyler, Texas.  Courthouse security, nation wide has drastically changed.  Sheriff’s have had to re-address their security practices, implement new policies, ban electronic devices, and educate judicial staff on courthouse security and personal security behaviors. 

Over the past several years I have had the distinct pleasure of conducting courthouse security assessments in conjunction with the Supreme Court of Virginia, Virginia Courtroom Safety Program under the direction of VCPI (Virginia Center of Policing Innovation) and the Virginia Sheriff Association. I have conducted these assessment with some of the most professional and dedicated Virginia Deputy Sheriff’s and Virginia State Troopers who have had the best interest in providing Sheriff’s and Judges with the most comprehensive review of their facilities vulnerabilities. 

The assessment team is customarily comprised of a lead assessor who is experienced in courthouse/courtroom operations, a state trooper who is knowledgeable in crime prevention and usually a deputy who is either familiar in corrections, sheriff’s emergency response team (sert) and or accreditation procedures or a combination thereof.

Once a facility has been scheduled to be assessed, the local Sheriff’s Office will assign a deputy to aid the assessors in conducting the assessment.  Courthouse assessment depending, on the size of the facility, usually last no more than two days.

Most courthouses maintain all three court jurisdictions within one building i.e. circuit, general district and juvenile & domestic relations court.   Court jurisdictions that are located in separate buildings require a separate report to be generated.

Depending on the size of the courthouse and number or courtrooms, the assessors will continuously be on the move, gathering, observing and documenting information for the report.  Assessors strongly encourage Sheriffs, Judges, Court Security Deputies, and employees to freely express their opinions, as to capture the true essence of the daily security operations and working environment.   

In my opinion two issues that most impact Sheriff’s in Virginia are staffing levels and cost.  Sheriff’s expressed real concerns for additional Court Security Deputies needed to provide adequate security coverage.  In this current economic crisis local budgets are kept extremely tight. 

“Security need” has been defined as the discrepancy between a facilities present state and performance level and the ideal or acceptable state or level or performance. Often our “security needs” will be defined by your organization’s mission, budget and long and short term goals. Our responsibility remains the same, to protect judicial staff, employees, participants, visitors and inmates appearing in court with existing resources. 

First let me state that when conducting a courthouse assessment, assessors are not their to criticize the way a courthouse is being operated or to scrutinize an office policy and procedures. Assessors are there to make recommendations to mitigate risk.  Physical security recommendations are based on the concepts of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) and are intended to reduce the likelihood of crime or an act of terrorism.  The recommendations do not guarantee a crime-free environment, but are intended to delay, deter and detect criminal activity in or around your courthouse.  

Courthouse assessments are intended to examine the security of the courthouse in terms of procedures and physical infrastructure, ensuring the safety and security of all who use the commonwealth’s judicial facilities.  Information gathered during the assessment will come from those who have a vested interest in the daily safety and security operations of the facility, such as the Court Security Deputies, Judges and Clerks. An on-site security assessment is conducted to identify all requirements associated with the application of physical security equipment, to counter one or more perceived or potential threats.  Physical security equipment includes lighting, closed circuit television, intrusion detection systems, barriers and other similar devices, which support or enhance the daily security operation.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has a long standing pride in its judicial systems as it pertains to courthouses. Some courthouses in the Commonwealth have been designated as ‘Historical”.  Assessors who find themselves assessing an historical courthouse will be limited in their recommendations for security upgrades. 

Assessors will evaluate courthouse security vulnerabilities, security screening systems, access/egress control, judicial chambers, alarm system, assets, barriers, surveillance systems, exterior lighting, physical security measures, policy and procedures, site hardening, perimeter protection, courtroom security, courtroom design, inmate movement, holding cell area’s , fire protection, courthouse communications,  public and secured parking, prisoner transport, building utilities, locking devices, life safety equipment, signage to inform visitors of what is prohibited within the courthouse,  etc.    Assessors will also meet with judicial staff i.e. chief judges, clerks, division heads, facility maintenance engineers and office employees to ascertain their perspective on security and for them to voice their concerns as it pertains to their daily operations. The surrounding areas of the courthouse will be assessed as it pertains to the nearest medical facilities, crime, emergency response agencies, banking institutions and public transportation systems.

Assessors will request if available, to review all agencies courthouse/courtroom policies and procedures and emergency procedures to include bomb threats, chemical hazards, suspicious packages, natural disasters, fire, gas leaks, high profile cases, medical emergencies, shelter in place, active shooter, evacuations, jury sequestration, ADA requirements, key control, handling of mail, threats and inappropriate contact/communications towards judges.  

If your courthouse has not been assessed, I strongly recommend it. As a lead assessor, I enjoy visiting other courthouses and observing my fellow Court Security Deputies in the performance of their assigned duties. Not only do assessors make recommendations, but they have the opportunity to constantly educate themselves on current security upgrades and technology that exist, and provide solid advice to their Sheriff. I am constantly assessing security in the Arlington County Courthouse, and am always reminded of two favorite quotes. 

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”

Edmund Burke, Irish political philosopher 

 “Those Who Forget The Past Are Condemned To Repeat It”.

 Poet and philosopher George Santayana

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