When architects, court agencies and users collaborate to design courthouses, safety and security are paramount in their objectives.
One of the most well-known cases of courthouse violence took place in March 2005 in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Ga., when Brian Gene Nichols escaped from custody and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and later a federal agent. Nichols was captured 26 hours later; however, this event led to intense debate about the condition of security in public facilities, especially courthouses.
Between 1970 and 2005, there were 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 role 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 that guide architects in incorporating security into the design of courts facilities. In other states, where such guidelines have not been developed yet, other resources are referenced that can guide an architect through this process. For example, Chapter 16 of the U.S. Courts Design Guide (prepared under the direction of the Space and Facilities Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States) discusses the planning and design of courthouse security including security planning and design concepts, security systems and equipment.
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.
Security solutions include the site as well as 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 the secured parking areas is 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 stand-off perimeter, is a mandatory requirement for federal courthouses and is gradually becoming a norm in state courthouses as well. Additional efforts in planning and provision of physical barriers are applied that ensure that a vehicle does not cross over the stand-off perimeter and pose a threat to a facility. These barriers are “invisible” or unobtrusive forms that blend into the environment.
For the building design, a similar approach is taken where the various user 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 is 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 fa