Courtroom Safety and Security

From CMRC: After the shooting of a district judge, courtroom security is a pressing issue.

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Following the 2015 shooting of a state district judge in Austin, the issue of courthouse security came under intense scrutiny by state and local officials. Peace officers realized that screening for weapons at the courthouse door isn’t sufficient to protect the people who work inside the courthouse.

Judge Julie Kocurek was arriving home from a Friday night football game in 2015 when she was shot and severely wounded inside her vehicle while in her driveway. She survived after multiple surgeries and went on to testify in the trial of her assailant, a man whose bond revocation case was due to be heard in her court a week after the shooting. The defendant was convicted this year and awaits sentencing.

Two TAC representatives outlined the resulting security upgrades at the County Management and Risk Conference in Galveston this spring.

TAC Judicial Program Manager Susan Redford, who becomes the Association’s Executive Director on Jan. 1, 2019, recounted that the attack on Kocurek spurred the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to survey sitting judges around the state. The OCA found that two-thirds of those responding said they did not know of a security plan for their court, nor had security training been provided in their courthouse.

The Legislature responded in 2017 by passing Senate Bill 42, known as the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act, which lays out new requirements for counties, such as mandatory training for court security officers, including bailiffs and deputies. Employees must complete the 16-hour training by September 2019. Also, each county’s local administrative judge is required to establish a court security committee to adopt security policies and procedures for the courts. A new $5 fee on civil actions will help counties pay for these measures.

The OCA was told to hire a director of security and emergency preparedness to serve as a central resource for information. And the new state law requires that personal information for past and present
state and federal judges, such as home addresses, be withheld from public documents. 

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have ramped up their approach to courthouse security, said TAC Law Enforcement Consultant Gary Henderson. The very nature of many cases heard in courtrooms — divorce, domestic violence, child custody, murder prosecutions, sentencing hearings — means the courthouse has the potential to become ground zero for emotional upheaval and possible violence.

“There’s no formula for when violence will occur, but it can happen at any time and for any reason,” he said. For that reason, law enforcement stationed in courthouses look for warning signs, such as visitors who are wearing baggy clothes, are sweating heavily, acting nervous or avoiding eye contact. 

X-ray scanners, along with metal detectors, do a good job of eliminating the possibility of anyone entering the courthouse with a weapon, he said, adding, “Sheriffs are making great strides to make sure they protect their courthouses.” But more technology advances need to be deployed, such as metal doors, duress alarms in every office, video monitors in courtrooms, and improved interior and exterior lighting. Moreover, there should be an evacuation plan that every employee knows well. 

In 2014, Henderson said, Texas courthouses reported a total of 132 violent incidents, or 11 a month. With the new reporting requirements contained in SB 42, he predicts the numbers will be much higher.

Henderson wants everyone to know their options in case of an active shooter, adding, “Your survival may depend on whether you have a plan. Always have an exit plan.”

“If you can get out, do so, even when others want to stay,” he said. “Leave your belongings behind and try to find a safe way out. Once out of the line of fire, call 911. If you can’t get out of the building, act quickly and quietly,” and find a secure hiding place, turn out the lights, lock the doors and silence cell phones. If a room or closet is not available to hide in, get behind a large object that may protect you.

Henderson’s advice was blunt: “If your life is at risk, act with aggression. Disarm him or fight
with improvised weapons. Fight with everything you’ve got, even a fountain pen.”