The Architect’s Recipe for Courthouse Security

June 23, 2009
Courthouse security is achieved through design, technology, and operations that include the involvement of policies, procedures, and personnel

When architects, court agencies, and users collaborate to design courthouses, safety and security are paramount in their objectives.

One of the most recent cases of courthouse violence took place in March 2005 in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, when Brian Gene Nichols murdered a court reporter, the judge presiding over his trial, a sheriff’s deputy, and, later, a federal agent. This event led to intense debate about the condition of security in public facilities (especially courthouses).

Between 1970 and 2005, there have been 58 deaths and 97 assaults to state or local judges, local prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and court participants, according to a 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (Office of Justice Programs under the U.S. Department of Justice).

Due to the rising concerns over such violence, various agencies and organizations, including the Office of Justice Programs, are re-examining concepts such as Secured by Design and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) to understand and establish their roles in preventing crime in justice facilities.

Courthouse security is achieved through design, technology, and operations that include the involvement of policies, procedures, and personnel. The architect plays a crucial role in incorporating security measures in a courthouse, from conception through design, by first understanding the exact behavior of the courthouse and its users during various hours and operations, and then exploring solutions to manage and mitigate potential security issues through design.

Various states have developed design standards for court facilities that guide architects in incorporating security into the design. For example, Chapter 4 under Division 1 of the California Trial Court Facilities Standards provides ideas and solutions for security planning and design for California’s court facilities.

Prior to designing the facility, a comprehensive threat and vulnerability analysis should be conducted to identify the potential threats to the facility, the assets to be protected, and mitigation measures required to reduce the possibility of a threat, as well as the amount of damage inflicted on the facility and its tenants. Facility assets and the potential impact on them due to an event should be studied. Threats associated with natural, manmade, and accidental incidents should be studied. Appropriate mitigation measures associated with physical, architectural, operational, and electronic security should be recommended as solutions that can be integrated seamlessly in the design.

Courthouse users include judges, court staff, administrative staff, security personnel, visitors, jury members, and detainees. The various zones associated with their use are classified into public, private, and secure.

Planning various components of the courtroom and its adjacent facilities requires careful understanding of the functions and their co-relationships. Once the critical dos and don’ts have been identified, the various spaces can be laid out, and associated circulation patterns can be defined more easily (illustrated in the diagram).

Security solutions include the site and within the building itself. Both passive and active measures are integrated into the design of the courthouse to aid in managing safety and security efficiently.

Security on-site is achieved by separating the various zones and corresponding circulation routes. Security personnel, staff, and especially judges’ entry points are generally placed away from the visitors. This applies especially to parking. Access to secured parking areas are further isolated by providing collapsible, heavy-duty barriers, such as retractable bollards (controllable remotely or by a card reader) that have the capability to stop most vehicles. The building itself is protected from vehicles that may contain improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by placing them at a safe distance away from adjoining vehicular roads. This distance, referred to as standoff perimeter, is a mandatory requirement for federal courthouses, and is gradually becoming a norm in state courthouses as well. For example, the California Trial Court Facilities Standards indicates a minimum 20-foot setback requirement between vehicular roadways and buildings. To reinforce this setback, additional efforts in planning and provision of physical barriers are applied to ensure that a vehicle does not cross over the standoff perimeter and pose a threat to a facility. These barriers are “invisible” or unobtrusive forms that blend into the environment. 

The Wayne L. Morse United State Courthouse in Eugene, OR, is a Level IV facility that was designed with these site parameters. Invisible site security has been established with perimeter parking restrictions and building setback as per standoff perimeter, supplemented with a 1-meter-tall perimeter wall with landscape design that corresponds to the height of the podium and fills the space between the perimeter wall and the building on three sides. Security barriers are practically invisible, taking the form of a series of cubic retaining walls holding turf grass. As visitors approach the main entrance from the south, periodic wall openings admit pedestrians to an internal public plaza at ground level.

For the building design, a similar approach is taken where the various use groups and their functions are analyzed based on which various zones and circulation routes are established. Visitors are required to enter through a single, clearly established entry point where a screening station with a metal detector and X-ray machine are provided. Security policies bar the possession of specific items, such as firearms, blades, box cutters, etc., past the screening point. In several cases, this portion of the building is planned so that, if an explosive or another event occurs, it will have less impact on the main building. The structural members on the façade of the main building facing this screening area are also designed to withstand the possibility of a structural collapse in case of an explosion. 

At the El Paso County Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex in Colorado Springs, CO, the entrance lobby, where security screening occurs, is pulled away from the main building mass. It’s also oriented away from the street with a single point of public entry into the Judicial Complex. Everyone, excluding judges, has to pass through metal detectors and X-ray machines. All exterior doors are alarmed electronically to notify security of unauthorized entry or exit.

Once inside the building, visitors are allowed to access the public areas. Staff areas are accessible via card-access system. CCTV cameras monitor public areas, and concealed duress alarm switches installed at staff-visitor interaction areas provide staff the ability to call for assistance during an emergency.

Inmate areas are designed based on jail design standards. Walls are generally fully rebar reinforced grouted concrete masonry units, and doors and windows are security hollow metal with security glazing and security hardware. The inmate movement route from the enclosed vehicular sally port to the courtroom is such that there is no overlap of circulation with public or private zones. A centralized control station with the capabilities to view CCTV cameras, control doors, receive duress signals, and even manage the card-access system is generally provided at this station.

At the courts level, visitors are allowed in the public areas, unless they have a specific purpose in the private areas for meetings or court proceedings. Behind the courtroom, away from the public zones are the private area comprises of judges’ chambers and suites, jury deliberation rooms, and other court-related spaces where public access is restricted. Visitors with specific appointments with judges are permitted in after communicating with the judge’s staff in this area. The jury deliberation rooms are planned in a way that any public interaction during a court proceeding is not possible. 

At the Sacramento Juvenile Courthouse in Sacramento, CA, the secure zone is designed to protect judges and their staff, clerks, and juries from undue contact with the public. This zone originates in the lower level at the secure judicial parking area. A dedicated elevator moves the judiciary up through the various levels to their respective offices on court floors. On the court floors, this zone is located at the rear of courtrooms and is comprised of chambers suites, a jury deliberation room, administrative areas, and support rooms for the courtrooms. In the photo of the security screening area, metal detectors are concealed in the columns between the glass doors at left and the service counter at right.

Today’s courthouses not only represent law and justice, but they’re also symbolic of community pride and architectural styles, and provide a more inviting identity to our society. The architect’s role is more critical to blend in one more essential ingredient into this recipe of a successful courthouse: security.

Shamit Das is a security and detention design specialist at DLR Group.

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