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August 06, 2022

Courtroom safety: 7 musts to defuse, deter violence

A safe court environment goes beyond guns, gates and guards — it starts with a judge who knows how to create and maintain a calm and compassionate atmosphere for litigants and lawyers.

Four panelists shared tips about courtroom security at the Aug. 5 program, “Court Security Gambit: De-escalation Courtroom Techniques for Lawyers and Judges” at the American Bar Association 2022 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

“The courthouse is much like a hospital. Nobody wants to be there,” said John Muffler, a courthouse security consultant and principal with Aequitas Global Security. Many people there are under stress and dealing with emotions connected to divorce, child custody and other issues that may prompt outbursts and bad behavior. “It’s important to understand the environment … You have to be an active participant in your own security.”

Compassion is your No. 1 security feature, Muffler said, and being observant is a key first step in the de-escalation of a tense or potential out-of-hand situation. Be aware of changes in behavior and the demeanor of individuals in the courtroom.

The panelists offered additional tips for helping to keep the courtroom calm and safe:

Listen to the person. Affirm defendants and let them know that you hear them, said Elizabeth “Ellie” Finn, a retired municipal court judge in Glendale, Arizona, who trains municipal judges on de-escalation techniques. When an individual has an outburst, don’t try to outtalk them. Listen to meet his or her need.

Plan in advance. In high-profile trials and hearings, hold meetings in advance with attorneys, judges and staff so that everyone will know what to expect, said Phinia Aten, chief judge of the magistrate court of Rockdale County, Georgia. Lawyers can then inform their clients about how the proceedings will flow and how to behave in court. “Explanation and clarity go a long way,” she said.

Watch your tone. Your tone of voice makes a big difference in how a litigant will act — or react — especially in an unsecured courtroom environment, said James Gilbert, chief administrative law judge for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C. Be measured, clear and calm, particularly with pro se litigants, who may be nervous and unfamiliar with court procedures. You want them to be comfortable and at ease to avoid angry outbursts. But don’t hesitate to raise your voice when needed to maintain control of the room.

Let people have their say. Some people have waited a long time to have their day in court, Gilbert said. So give them time to let them say what they want (within reason) so that they will feel heard. And take a well-timed recess when things get hot during proceedings so that upset individuals can have time to collect themselves.

Stagger comings and goings. Muffler said controlling when witnesses move in and out of court will help avoid encounters and possible confrontations between contentious parties.

Maintain formality. It helps a judge to keep control in the court, Aten said. So tell people to remain seated unless they are speaking and addressing the court. Having people seated also keeps everyone in their place and allows you to better scan the environment.

Use code words to signal trouble. Aten said she has told officials in her courtroom — whether it’s the bailiff, court reporter or guard — that they are free to say, “We need to take an ‘comfort break’” if they see something amiss. Also, she has informed them that they need to move quickly if she abruptly leaves the bench. That means “you need to drop, roll and go with me,” she said.

The program, sponsored by the Judicial Division, was moderated by Stephanie Domitrovich, retired state trial judge of the 6th Judicial District of Pennsylvania.