Security at What Cost? A Comparative Evaluation of Increased Court Security*

By Gould, Jon B. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Security at What Cost? A Comparative Evaluation of Increased Court Security*


Gould, Jon B., Justice System Journal


This article presents results from a pilot case study comparing the effects of court security in two modern and highly respected metropolitan county court systems. Although federal and state courts have paid increasing attention to security in their buildings and operations, little formal evaluation has been conducted of the effects of heightened security on court operations or court users, including judges, litigants, lauryers, jurors, and the general public. The present research identified four common areas of concern, including inadequate signage and covered waiting areas at courthouse entry stations; disparities between the public's expectations of security measures and the limits of implementation; inconsistent monitoring of security measures; and gaps between heightened public expectations of security and the realities of limited resources to accomplish these tasks. If even these courts presented issues of concern, there are likely additional courts that warrant greater attention to the effects of security.

"Court security is a balance. A courthouse is a place where people are supposed to come to find justice" (Murez, 2005).

Since the mid-1990s, federal and state courts have paid increasing attention to security in their buildings and operations. Bollards and magnetometers are now regular features in many courthouses, as the judiciary is adopting many of the same security measures common in other sensitive government facilities. In this understandable move to raise the bar for court security, however, little formal evaluation has been conducted of the effects of heightened security on court operations or court users, including judges, litigants, lawyers, jurors, and the general public. To be sure, the effects of security measures may be an informal component of the decision to purchase a new security system or adopt new security protocols. But given the special nature of the judiciary as an open arbiter for the general public, it is important that the measures adopted by the courts to protect themselves and their constituencies avoid harm to the courts' reputation for openness, impartiality, or prudence.

This article presents results from a pilot case study examining the effects of court security. The project systematically compared two respected metropolitan county court systems, using both observational and qualitative methodologies to examine the effects of security measures on court operations and constituencies. Both courts are among the national leaders in securing their facilities, and court officials have been responsive to organized objections to security measures when voiced by court staff and, in some cases, by attorneys. However, the research identified four common areas of concern, suggesting there is more that these and other courts can do in considering the effects of heightened security.

Problems begin at courthouse entry stations, where inadequate signage and a lack of covered waiting areas may inadvertently leave a poor impression on court users of the courts' responsiveness and competence. In addition, there appear to be disparities between the public's expectations of security measures and the limits of implementation in both courts; such discrepancies may unintentionally create a false sense of security among those who use and work in the courts. Conversely, the failure of court leaders to regularly monitor security measures and communicate about them may raise the anxiety level of some court users, who worry that courthouses are insufficiently secure. Finally, there are gaps between heightened public expectations of security and the realities of limited resources to accomplish these tasks, which may lower staff morale and lead to burnout.

This project was not intended to examine the merits or adequacy of security measures in these courts; thus, the article does not present recommendations for new or additional security measures. For that matter, the research methodology of two case studies necessarily limits the generalizability of these findings. …

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