Courtroom safety is not just a concern for big cities or during high profile cases. It should be a daily concern for every court officer and municipal council.
A well-thought out, well-implemented safety plan covers an array of situations from incidents involving guns to a medical emergency in the courtroom to an irate individual paying a court fine. Municipalities have to strike a delicate balance between making their courts and court services accessible and protecting court personnel and members of the public.
Board members for the Municipal Court Administration Association, an affiliate of the Municipal Association, shared some of their best practices for courtroom security.
- Fund a full-time sworn officer assigned to the court as a security officer in addition to the bailiff. (State law requires the police department to provide a bailiff.) The officer should have no other duties during that time (i.e., testifying, transporting prisoners) so that he can devote his undivided attention to securing the courtroom. The officer should be present for all court proceedings, such as bond hearings, bench court, jury trials or any other hearings.
- Establish a separate, direct and secure path for the judge and clerk to enter and exit the courtroom.
- Conduct a visual sweep of the courtroom and bathrooms before and after every court session. Report any and all objects out of the ordinary.
- Require handcuffs and/or leg shackles for all prisoners.
- Handle as many bond hearings as possible with prisoners via video.
- Secure office areas outside of the courtroom where staff interacts with members of the public.
- Provide a Plexiglas barrier so individuals cannot lean, jump or throw things over the counter.
- Do not have staplers, letter openers, scissors or similar items on desks or within reach.
- Have a conference room away from the lobby to speak with individuals who are upset. (Situations that require individuals to interact with the court can be highly emotional and stressful.) This will de-escalate the situation and remove the emotion from the public area.
- Install duress/panic buttons and test on a regular basis (preferably monthly). Ensure the alarms work and court/police personnel know how to respond appropriately.
The Municipal Court Administration Association of South Carolina conducts training sessions on a variety of topics for municipal judges and court personnel. Members learn and share best practices through these meetings and the MCAA listserve.