In 2007, the Arkansas General Assembly adopted the Arkansas Court Security Act to ensure safe and secure courthouse environments through a general program for security and emergency preparedness for the judicial branch. The Act created a court security grant program for cities and counties that have developed security and emergency preparedness plans. In addition, the Act created a Director of Security and Emergency Preparedness position with the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). One of the Director’s responsibilities was to develop a required training and certification program of not less than 12 hours for court security officers, in addition to their basic law enforcement training. Court security officers must complete the program within a year of beginning service.
In order to meet this requirement, the Arkansas AOC was awarded an SJI grant in FY 2008 (SJI-08-T-147) to develop this new certification program. The AOC selected the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to provide the technical assistance needed to develop the curriculum, and administer the training to a core group of court security officer trainers throughout the state. The principal areas of course coverage include: 1) overview of the Arkansas court system and procedures; 2) overview of relevant constitutional, statutory, and case law for court security; 3) best practices for providing courthouse and courtroom security; 4) procedures for jury trials; 5) prisoners in the courtroom and their transport; and 6) protection of individuals and targeted threats.
The SJI-funded court security officer “train the trainer” program was conducted in December of 2008. Following the conclusion of the grant, the AOC began partnering with local courts and law enforcement agencies to host the course across the state. Since 2008, approximately 1,550 law enforcement officers have participated in the training statewide.
On September 13, 2011, a man entered the Crawford County Courthouse (located in Van Buren, Arkansas) looking for a judge. The assailant was armed with three semi-automatic handguns and a semi-automatic rifle when he entered the courthouse. There were no metal detectors at the entrance of the courthouse, and court was not in session at the time he entered the building. However, court staff were able to contact 911 through recently installed panic alarms that were acquired through the State’s court security grant program. The assailant shot the judge’s assistant, and then exited the courthouse and began exchanging gunfire with law enforcement officers and was eventually killed. Two of the responding law enforcement officers that day had completed the court security officer training. In subsequent interviews, both officers noted the value of this training, especially the modules on responding to violent scenarios in the courthouse.
Despite judges, court administrators, and law enforcement officers working together to improve court security, not all courthouses, especially those in rural areas, are fully protected. Staffing, equipment, and training are all key to adequate protection of the courts and the citizens they serve. According to research from the Center for Judicial and Executive Security, court violence is on the rise. There has been a steady increase in shootings, bombings, and arson attacks over the last 40 years – 28 incidents from 1970-1979; 45 from 1980-1989; 67 from 1990-1999; and 88 from 2000-2009. Already in 2012, there have been five courthouse shootings across the United States. The training and certification program developed in Arkansas can be a model for other states seeking to address this critical issue.