A recent directive from the state Supreme Court seeks to improve municipal court security by requiring planning and court safety committees.
It is a typical night in municipal court: the courtroom is packed. Among the litigants are a man accused of drunk driving who may lose his driver’s license, a domestic violence victim and her abuser, and two neighbors who are feuding over a barking dog. The general public may not consider these cases important, but to the citizens in the courtroom, the outcomes of these cases can change their lives. Emotions are running high. And sometimes, when emotions dominate, they can spill over into violence.
More than 6.4 million cases were decided in New Jersey’s municipal courts last year, with more than 1.5 million people actually attending municipal court. Many more paid their tickets at municipal court payment windows. In addition, municipal courts statewide employ more than 2,000 people—judges, administrators, clerks, and secretaries. These citizens and employees all must feel secure in knowing that when they come to court, they will be free from the threat of violence. A court must be a safe haven.
Last year, the Conference of Municipal Court Presiding Judges, working with the Conference of Municipal Division Managers, addressed the issue of better securing our municipal courts. Judge David Krell, municipal court presiding judge for Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester Counties, chaired the subcommittee that spearheaded that effort. Judge Krell explained the presiding judges’ goals, “We wanted to make our municipal courts just as secure as the Superior Courts. At the same time, we understood that no two municipal courts are the same. There are large urban courts that have several court sessions a day and, like in my counties, small rural courts that have court sessions only once or twice a month. These different types of courts have different security needs. We also recognized that local government and law enforcement would be our indispensable partners in making our municipal courts safe.”
The presiding judges’ work resulted in what eventually became the Statewide Municipal Court Security Policy, adopted by the Supreme Court in July 2006. The security policy is carefully crafted so that it does not mandate cookie-cutter security measures. Rather, it requires each municipal court to consider what security measures will be effective in that court, and to create a plan to be implemented by a local security committee. According to Ernest Comer, strategic security planner for the Judiciary, “When people think about increasing security, they sometimes focus on the big ticket items, but the most important part of security is planning. Most of the time, better court security can be achieved at little or no cost. It is a question of focusing on the problem. In the throes of an emergency or crisis, it is too late to start planning. If there is a security incident in a municipal courtroom, if a court receives a bomb threat, the lines of authority must be clear. Who has authority to shut down the court — Is it the judge? Is it the police chief? Or is it both? Authority, responsibility and coordination must be carefully thought through ahead of time, so that when a crisis occurs, everyone knows what to do.”
The security policy requires municipal courts to do three basic things. First, and most importantly, it requires that each court adopt a detailed municipal court security plan that addresses the critical area of security in that municipal court. This security plan should be developed with input from local law enforcement and municipal officials. Second, the security policy requires that a security committee be created to implement the plan and monitor its effectiveness on an ongoing basis. The committee should include representatives of both local law enforcement and local officials. Third, the security policy requires courts to report all security and workplace violence incidents to the Judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
Included in the security policy is a “schedule of protection” that identifies certain basic security measures. While at first glance, the schedule of protection may appear daunting, in reality, most municipal courts already have implemented, installed, or adopted many of the items contained in the schedule. For example, the vast majority of municipal courts already have installed panic buttons at critical locations in the courtroom. Other elements of the schedule are available at minimal cost. For example, the schedule calls for secure light switches. An inexpensive plastic cover installed over the light switches in the courtroom will secure the switches to prevent the lights from being turned off by someone not authorized to do so. Controlling sight lines need not involve significant construction or capital expenditures. For example, windows or doors that would allow people outside the courtroom to see into the courtroom can be covered with appropriate (and not overly costly) curtains or screens so that those inside cannot become targets.
As for larger budget items, the security policy does not mandate that these be implemented immediately. When the policy was issued, Judge Krell said, “We aren’t saying that every municipal court must have every item on the schedule of protection by the February 5 deadline for plans to be submitted. We are saying that we would like to see a reasonable plan. Larger-ticket items may be included in future budgets or may be identified and explained as items that aren’t needed in some municipal courts.”
Each security plan is a dynamic, not a static, document. The local security committee must review it every year to determine whether it is working and, if not, what modifications are needed.
After the security policy was released in July 2006, the Judiciary held “security summits” in many counties. These summits brought together all of the constituencies in the counties who have a stake in municipal court security to share information and training on municipal court security and on how to develop and implement municipal court security plans. By way of example, one such summit was held in Bergen County in January, hosted by the Bergen Judiciary and Assignment Judge Sybil Moses. More than 180 municipal court judges and administrators, mayors and council members, municipal attorneys, and chiefs of police attended one of the two summit sessions. Training was provided by court security experts from the New Jersey State Police, the U.S. Marshal’s Office, the Bergen County sheriff, and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Judge Roy McGeady, municipal court presiding judge for Bergen County, and one of the organizers of the Bergen County summit, said, “We are pleased at the great turnout we had at the security summit. It demonstrates the interest that the town officials and chiefs of police have in improving the security in our courts. Everyone has been cooperative and helpful. We all are working toward the one goal of having safe and secure municipal courts.”
Protecting the safety of everyone in the municipal courts is a critical challenge for our court system. As Judge McGeady noted at the Bergen County summit, “Cost is one relevant factor in planning for security, but so is the safety of everyone who walks into my courtroom. Part of my job as a municipal presiding judge is to solve problems before they occur. Once a tragedy happens, it is too late. After a tragic headline, everyone will point the finger at the other guy. We want to prevent that headline.”
Our recent survey shows that safety in the municipal courts has already improved as a result of the security policy. Approximately 99 percent of the courts submitted their local security plans by the deadline of February 5, and 96 percent of the courts have established a security committee. Before the security policy was issued, only a small percentage of courts had either a plan or a committee. In response to the policy, more than 85 percent of the courts now have weapons screening or a plan to implement it in the near future. The number of armed security officers in the courtroom also has increased. Before the policy was issued, 70 to 75 percent of municipal courtrooms had an armed security officer present during sessions. Now, more than 97 percent of the courtrooms have such an officer or plan to have one in the near future. Almost 99 percent of the courts have installed or plan to install ballistic shielding on the judge’s bench. We also have seen an increase in the number of courts that have implemented the other security measures listed on the schedule of protection.
For example, before the policy was issued, fewer than half the courtrooms had light switches that were inaccessible to the public. Since the policy was issued, more than 77 percent of the courts have made their light switches inaccessible or have plans to do so.
These dramatic improvements in municipal court security could not have happened without the cooperation and support of local officials and law enforcement. It is clear that the municipal officials share the Judiciary’s concern for the safety of those who come into municipal court. Their actions demonstrate that we share a common concern and share responsibility. I thank everyone who has been involved for their continuing efforts to improve the security in the municipal courts. Together we are well on the way to meeting our goal of ensuring that all of our courts, at every level, are secure and safe
Article published in New Jersey Municipalities Magazine, May 2007