Avoiding Future Atlantas

As the recent events in an Atlanta courtroom demonstrated, courtroom security is a critical issue. Courtrooms have historically been at high risk of violent behavior simply because of the nature of the participants and the high stakes in court proceedings.


According to the U.S. Marshals Service, threats against federal judicial officials average some 700 per year. The events in Atlanta have heightened sensitivity to the issue and are symptomatic of a longstanding challenge – securing the safety of the participants in court proceedings.

Modern technology can help to deter escape attempts and prevent violence, saving lives. Many technologies developed to prevent terrorist attacks and other forms of violence have proven their effectiveness in courthouses and prisons around the country. Some of these technologies are currently in use.

Courtroom security has four basic components: 1) outside the courthouse; 2) access to the courthouse; 3) in the courtroom; and 4) during transport. We will address each separately, but each is equally important.

1. Outside the courthouse. Car or truck bombs are the greatest threat to courthouses. The solution is: 1) keep vehicles at a safe distance from the courthouse, which is often impossible owing to the building’s location; and 2) provide the courthouse with bullet and blast resistant windows and doors – ideally at all levels.

Vehicles can be kept away from the building, through a combination of bollards and pop-up security barriers, as well as decorative security planters. Windows and doors for the first few floors should be fitted with Department of State-rated bullet and blast resistant windows and doors, and upper floors should at least have bullet resistant and shatter-proof windows.

2. Access to the courthouse. Many courthouses already have safeguards to keep unauthorized visitors out of the courthouse, and to assure that authorized visitors do not enter with weapons or explosives. Standard approaches include physical identification against photo identification and electronic inspection machines.

Unfortunately, within the courthouse itself it is helpful to make sure that visitors do not enter higher security areas. More sophisticated technology, such as limited access badges, makes it impossible for lower level approved access visitors to get into higher security areas. One way to do this is to have interior doors equipped with automatic locking devices so that special access level cards are required to open the secured area doors.

Even more sophisticated are biometric identification for highly secure areas such as judges’ chambers. Perhaps the most useful of all is a central command and control station where a guard can monitor cameras in all parts of the facility, inside and out, and can control certain security aspects such as automatic locking devices and requests for assistance.

The dual advantage of automatic locking devices is that if a visitor breaks through a security checkpoint, other areas of the courthouse can be remotely and temporarily locked down for further protection. In the Atlanta incident, the prisoner would not have escaped. Moreover, knowing that escape was not possible, the violence might have been avoided.

3. In the courtroom. The best defense against violence in the courtroom is to eliminate the combatant. This may sound odd, but with today’s technology, legal restrictions permitting, it is easy and very convenient.

Some of our largest cities are physically moving as many as 6,000 or more prisoners around every day for arraignments and other court proceedings. Every time a prisoner is moved, there is the cost of the move, the security risk during the move, and the security risk while the prisoner/defendant is in the courthouse.

Instead, courts can use video arraignment, which makes it possible for the accused to remain safely in the jail and be completely visible in the courtroom. The "automated courtroom" can avoid much of this transport and security risk, and is well accepted in many jurisdictions.

A completely integrated video arraignment system makes possible courtroom viewing via large video monitors; audio is channeled through the courtroom sound system and the monitors provide simultaneous viewing of judge, defense attorney, prosecutor and witnesses. The system can be designed to operate over LAN, WAN or ISDN facilities. Since many charges end up in plea-bargaining, the avoidance of in-person arraignment means the accused may never need to go to the courtroom.

Video arraignment is just the first step towards the truly automated courtroom – with automated evidence presentation, entire trials can take place without the accused actually being present in the courtroom, although that will take changes in legal regulations and, admittedly difficult, consent from the accused. In the interim, video arraignment is a major step forward towards improving security (by avoiding the need for it) and reducing costs.

The other critical step to improve courtroom safety is to provide effective but non-intrusive physical barriers between the accused and the judge, witnesses, and other key potential targets of the accused, such as jurors. For this protection, judicial benches and other barriers can be made out of bullet-resistant fiberglass that can be incorporated into any structure. It is also possible to have bullet (and attacker) resistant glass dividers that separate the accused from the judge’s bench and the witness stand as well as the juror’s box.

4. During transport. As discussed above in "In the courtroom,", the best security is avoiding the need for security at all, i.e. avoiding the need for transport and presence of the accused by using video arraignment technology. Failing that, standard procedures for securing prisoners in transit are well known and difficult to improve upon. Under the best of circumstances transporting prisoners is an imperfect science. Every effort should be made to avoid transport for both security and cost reasons.

Summary. While physically securing today’s multi-courtroom courthouse is an expensive task, especially retrofitting, it is critical in today’s dangerous world. Car bombs on the outside, dangerous weapons on the inside, and creative prisoners throughout the process, requires continual vigilance. But the solutions are available, and very effective once instituted.

Martin Roenigk is CEO of CompuDyne Corp.