November 01, 2014

Security Incident Reporting: An Essential Best Practice for All Courts

By Zygmont A. Pines and Mary Beth Marschik

Access to justice requires a safe and secure environment in which all those who come to a courthouse are free from fear, threats, intimidation, and violence. The peaceful resolution of disputes is fundamental to our system of government. Unfortunately, in court, persons must often confront directly their adversaries, with the outcome of proceedings leaving winners and losers. Disgruntled litigants, upset family members, and potentially violent prisoners are all too common in state courthouses today. A spate of recent tragic shootings has crystalized in public consciousness the inherent risks involved in the administration of justice. The threat of violence has unfortunately become the new normal for those in our justice system. Every day people enter our courthouses with dangerous weapons that are fortunately confiscated through court security personnel at the portals of our courthouses.

Background

In a comprehensive study of court-targeted violence (shootings, bombings, arson), the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES) reported 185 attacks between 1970 and 2009, with each decade denoting an increase in such attacks.1 In a subsequent report on court-related incidents of assaults, knifings, bomb plots, murder-for-hire, and other violence that stops short of shootings, bombings, and arson, CJES documented 238 security incidents in state courts for the years 2005–11, with 10 incidents recorded in 2005 and 67 in 2011.2

Judges, court administrators, and court security officers recognize that these numbers, while reflecting the trend toward an increase in incidents, do not capture the totality of incidents they confront on a daily basis. In fact, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Judicial Independence in 2014 estimated that there have been 406 court-targeted acts of violence since 2005. Getting a handle on the actual number of incidents occurring in state courts is difficult in the absence of a uniform system of data collection. While the federal Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 contained a provision that required the establishment of a nationwide security incident database, that mandate has yet to be fulfilled because Congress has not supported its legislation with any appropriations.

The ultimate objective of any court security program is to protect those who work in and visit our courthouses. The detection of inappropriate communications, patterns of violence, and other threats is vital to achieve this aim. Incident reporting provides timely, valuable information that adds to the arsenal of protective measures necessary to increase vigilance and thwart potential attacks, those occurring both inside and outside our courthouses. In addition, an incident reporting system documents the dangers judges, court personnel, and the public face, thereby substantiating the need for financial resources to improve safety and security. In a time of limited, dedicated funding, proving such need is especially important.

The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators identified incident reporting as one of the 10 essential elements for court security and emergency preparedness.3 Several states have undertaken efforts to incorporate this element in their court security plans. In Pennsylvania, those efforts culminated in the establishment of an electronic incident reporting system for 527 magisterial district judges in 2005 and 451 common pleas (trial) court judges in 2007.

Pennsylvania’s Court Security Program

In 1999, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court began to review security for all courts in the Commonwealth. The review originated with an in-house survey of 1,112 judges who came into direct contact with criminal defendants and civil litigants. The survey focused on various types of threats and assaults, both inside and outside the courthouse, that occurred in the previous year. Survey findings revealed that 100 percent of the physical assaults occurred in the courthouse, 74 percent of threatening communications occurred inside the courthouse, and 72 percent of inappropriate approaches occurred inside the courthouse.4

The results of this survey spurred the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to request further review and action, culminating in the establishment in 2002 of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Judicial Council’s Committee on Judicial Safety and Preparedness. The Committee’s initial goal was to identify, recommend, prioritize, and implement low-cost, simplified solutions for improved court security, and then to identify longer-term recommendations and available resources to implement them.

The Committee’s efforts to achieve these aims focused on building bridges to key stakeholders in court security: judges, court administrators, county executives and commissioners, sheriffs, and state legislators. Participation of stakeholder representatives on the Committee set a model for the later establishment of local court security committees. Collaboration and communication between and among these stakeholders had been and continues to be a fundamental constituent of Pennsylvania’s court security initiatives.

With the results of the 1999 and subsequent surveys initiated by the Committee on Judicial Safety and Preparedness, meetings with stakeholders, and contributions from experts in court security, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts sought funding from the Pennsylvania legislature to support four specific physical security enhancements for magisterial district courts and funding to provide personal safety training for personnel who work in those courts. The legislature appropriated $5.1 million in fiscal year 2004–05 for these measures and created a line item in the judiciary’s budget for safety and security initiatives for Pennsylvania’s state courts. While this initial budget request relied heavily upon the findings of multiple surveys of Pennsylvania’s judges, subsequent fiscal year budget requests have used data from Pennsylvania’s Judicial Incident Reporting System (PAJIRS) to support ongoing court safety and security projects for both common pleas and magisterial district courts.

The development of PAJIRS followed a course of discussion among state-level stakeholders regarding key philosophical and practical parameters necessary to be addressed prior to statewide implementation. These included identification and training of users, definition of reportable incidents, confidentiality issues, timeliness of report submissions, and an electronic versus paper system. It was clear from the outset that the usefulness of incident information had to encompass data collection to support funding requests and incident information to prevent the opportunity and capacity for persons to do harm to judges, court personnel, and all others who have business in or visit state courts. In addition, components of a successful incident reporting system had to straddle jurisdictional considerations inherent in common pleas and magisterial district courts. Decisions made relative to these parameters and considerations formed the basis of a court security incident reporting system that has changed little since inception.

Essential Components of an Incident Reporting Program

Based on our experience in developing and implementing PAJIRS, we recommend the following elements for an effective court security incident reporting system:

1. Leadership. President judges and court administrators are the natural leaders in promoting the importance of an incident reporting system and ensuring that all incidents in their courts are reported, and necessary actions undertaken to mitigate any threats arising from these incidents. Leadership, in terms of visible and active commitment, is the critical first component.

2. Definitional clarity. Establishing a definition of “reportable incident” that is simple yet sufficiently comprehensive facilitates a common understanding of problematic and dangerous behaviors. In Pennsylvania, in addition to articulating a standard definition, we provide examples of what conduct constitutes a reportable incident. This definition is consistent with a related recommendation by The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators’ (CCJ/COSCA) Court Security Committee in 2006. Definitional clarity is indispensable to reliable reporting and comprehensive data collection.

3. User-friendly process. This element is particularly important in securing buy-in from all parties involved in promoting and filing security incident reports. While the process can be accomplished in paper form, an electronic process yields a more dynamic, robust system. In Pennsylvania, we spent a great deal of time creating and “road testing” an electronic form that users would find easy to fill out with concomitant instructions that enable easy navigation of this process. The decision was made fairly early on to opt for an electronic rather than paper system. The former captures vital information quickly, allows for multiple e-mail notifications to designated recipients, is not disposed to loss, and otherwise makes for more efficient data collection and prompt response to serious incidents. In addition, opting for a form that is composed mostly of “check-offs” as opposed to a form that uses narratives to describe incidents precludes opportunities for multiple interpretations of the recorded event.

4. Identify who is required to report an incident. The corollary is to identify who receives a copy of the report. In Pennsylvania, all magisterial district judges and their staff are authorized to file incident reports. For common pleas courts, president judges, sheriffs, and court administrators are authorized to file reports. In addition, other members of the judiciary and court staff may be so authorized, at the discretion of the court. The number and variety of filers afford flexibility sufficient to accommodate court size and characteristics. Once a report is filed (“submitted”), e-mail notifications are sent to the district court administrator, sheriff, and staff with the Office of Judicial Security in the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC).

5. Timely reporting. In order for any protective measures to be undertaken in response to an incident, it is vital that an incident is timely filed. However, we continually emphasize that incident reports are never a substitute for immediate contact with law enforcement or other first responders.

6. Confidentiality. Information contained in security incident reports should be confidential, and access to these reports should be limited in order to encourage judges, court staff, and other designated users to file reports and provide sufficient information to facilitate the implementation of any needed protective measures.

7. Administrative infrastructure. At the local and the state levels, personnel should be designated to work directly with judges and court staff to assist them in reporting and responding to security incidents and to provide overall compliance with the incident reporting system. In Pennsylvania, each judicial district is required to establish functioning local court security committees. Also, the AOPC Office of Judicial Security was created at the state level to perform this role. Whenever staff in the Office receives an e-mail notification that a PAJIRS report has been filed, an AOPC security staff member reviews the report and calls the person who filed the report. Through this direct contact, Office of Judicial Security staff can assess the incident, liaise with law enforcement, and otherwise assist in the provision of any protective actions that might be needed. In addition, the phone call serves as a mechanism to reinforce the utility and value of PAJIRS and other court security measures.

8. Education and training. In order to secure support for an incident reporting system, it is essential for court leadership and personnel to understand the purpose, operation, and benefits of such a system. This can be accomplished by formal training at the start of this security initiative, at programs for new judges and court administrators, and through subsequent reinforcement at annual meetings or conferences of judges and court administrators. In West Virginia and Wisconsin, for example, statewide security summits provide court security forums. Because of its size and diversity of judicial districts, Pennsylvania has adopted a regional approach. Each annual workshop for local court security committees includes a session on PAJIRS. Workshops are conducted on a regional basis in order to better accommodate scheduling and travel needs of participants.

9. Communication and collaboration. One cannot overstress this element. Every aspect of a court security program requires continuous communication and collaboration to get off the ground and to sustain interest, at both the local and the state levels. They are particularly important in the creation and optimal functioning of an incident reporting system. Too easily and too often the approach to court security can vacillate between complacency and fear, thereby degrading good judgment and decision making in the face of a threat or attack. (“To a man who lives in fear, everything rustles.” Sophocles) A security incident reporting system both fosters and requires communication and collaboration among all vested parties. An incident reporting system promotes greater awareness and vigilance, an antidote to complacency and fear.

10. Institutionalize best practices. Security incident reporting systems should be part of a comprehensive court security program. Codifying the essential elements of a program reflects the importance of court security in the administration of justice. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court promulgated Rules of Judicial Administration that address court emergencies, continuity of operations planning, and judicial security.5 Rule 1954 requires the president judge of each judicial district to ensure that all reporting requirements of PAJIRS are completed by the district court administrator (or his or her designee) by the close of business of the day on which the incident occurred. In addition, among the duties of a local court security committee are the review and assessment of all security incidents and concomitant recommendations of related, appropriate actions to the president judge.

Conclusion

Recently, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Judicial Independence proposed Resolution 106 regarding the importance of court security to the preservation of the rule of law. The Resolution calls for the increased funding of court security and urges all courts to create and revise judicial security protocols. Recognizing the need to conduct threat assessments and report incidents on a continual basis, the Resolution declares: “Capturing, synthesizing, and retaining data is [sic] crucial to identifying and preventing security threats.”6

The ideal way to promote court security is the establishment of a national court security incident reporting system. Such information would provide a wealth of intelligence data for federal and state law enforcement authorities, as well as for the courts. However, it is clear that waiting for supportive federal funding or the creation of such a national system does not serve the best interests of the courts. Waiting does not address or diminish the danger that our judges, court personnel, law enforcement, litigants, and visitors to our courthouses face on a daily basis.

A state can implement a security incident reporting system at minimal cost. Implementation simply requires cooperation and commitment. An incident reporting system, aside from providing valuable intelligence, demonstrates prudent risk management. From a symbolic or practical perspective, it reinforces the importance of court security by involving everyone (judges, staff, facilities management, and law enforcement) in a cooperative enterprise of vigilance. Thus, it is imperative that state judiciaries undertake this fundamental best practice in court security. Pennsylvania’s experience with the development and implementation of PAJIRS has demonstrated that this undertaking is doable, useful, and vital.

Based on our experience, we urge all state court systems to adopt and institutionalize this important security measure as a best practice in an overall, comprehensive court security program.

Endnotes

1. Ctr. for Judicial & Executive Sec., Court-Targeted Acts of Violence (2010).

2. Ctr. for Judicial & Executive Sec., Disorder in the Courts (2012).

3. Conference of Chief Justices & Conference of State Court Admins., CCJ/COSCA Court Security Handbook: Ten Essential Elements for Court Security and Emergency Preparedness (2012.)

4. Neil Alan Weiner et al., Safe and Secure: Protecting Judicial Officials, 4 Ct. Rev. 26, 36 (Winter 2000).

5. Pa. R. Judicial Admin. 1950–54.

6. Standing Comm. on Judicial Indep., Am. Bar Ass’n, 2014 Report to the House of Delegates 152.