Security in Georgia’s Courts

By Ashley G. Stollar, Communications/Outreach Specialist II

On March 11, 2005, a tragedy at the Fulton County Courthouse left the judicial community in the state and around the nation stunned.  Judge Rowland Barnes and Court Reporter Julie Brandau lost their lives in a courtroom at the Fulton County Courthouse. Deputy Hoyt Teasley and US Customs Agent David Wilhelms were also killed as Brian Nichols, an inmate awaiting trial, escaped from the Courthouse. Deputy Cynthia Hall sustained brain injuries as Nichols wrested away her gun.
In the aftermath of the Fulton County Courthouse shooting, many measures have been taken to ensure the safety of the buildings where court proceedings are held and the safety of those who do business in courthouses around the state. The General Assembly revised law to require the duties of sheriffs to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for the security of county courthouses. 
First published in 2006, the Georgia Standards for the Security of Courthouses and Other Court Facilities was updated in 2012. This document, jointly created by the Council of Superior Court Judges and Georgia Sheriff’s Association, lays out standard procedures that are necessary to maintain safety in Georgia’s courtrooms.
Beserk defendant points out security needs.
Gwinnett Justice Center locked down.
altThese are just two recent headlines that attest to the need and efficacy of the standards that Judge Samuel Ozburn (at right) has worked hard on for the past ten years.  Judge Ozburn has served as Superior Court Judge in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit since 1995 and is the chair of the Special Committee on Court Security for the Council of Superior Court Judges.
Judge Ozburn recently spoke with the Courts Journal to discuss court security.
Courts Journal:  The first Standards were published in 2006; a revision was made in 2012. What prompted the revision?  
Judge Ozburn: The first edition was a basic template created to address the basics of court security. As the years have passed, we have updated and enhanced that basic template.
Courts Journal:  What makes court security so important?
Judge Ozburn: In years past, the county courthouse was the centerpiece of a town, a showcase to the community. There were four entrances with little or no security.  Today, that’s not the case. People come in to pay their fines or have their cases heard. Incidents like the Fulton County shooting and others have heightened our awareness of what could go wrong.  There is a duty to protect everyone who is in the courthouse, whether it’s a judge, lawyer, jury member, defendant, law enforcement officer, or member of the public.
Courts Journal:  What are some of the security precautions in the Standards?
Judge Ozburn: Again, a safe environment is necessary for everyone. The public and defendants do not enter a courtroom through the same doors.  There are restricted areas where only judges and staff have access.  Policies are in place to determine who has the authority to carry weapons beyond security checkpoints.
Shrubbery and other landscaping is at a minimum in order to decrease the areas one might hide a person or a weapon. Daily sweeps inside and outside courthouses are mandatory.
Recently, the Special Committee on Court Security created a Basic Courtroom Security Guideline, a “cheat sheet” for judges and sheriff’s deputies to follow prior to court sessions. This was distributed to the different councils of judges in order that all classes of court maintain a minimum level of security.
Courts Journal:  The Standards address security personnel in the courtroom to include enough security personnel for protection of the judge, inmate, jury members, witnesses, and others.
Judge Ozburn: There are a lot of moving parts during court proceedings. Everyone in the courthouse should feel safe and be protected.  The hope is that being proactive -- having law enforcement visible -- will dissuade those who might contemplate disruption or endanger someone.
Newton County has, roughly, 100,000 residents. In 2014, 165,000 people entered this courthouse and conducted business here.  That shows how many people need protection. And that’s just in one county.
Courts Journal:  Once the Standards were released, what was the reaction around the state? Were any counties hesitant to make changes?
Judge Ozburn: Counties were appreciative of the direction the Standards give.  We have offered training for counties in order to help institute the changes.
Courts Journal:  Any last thoughts.
Judge Ozburn: We owe it to the Fulton County victims to make sure an incident like that doesn’t happen again.
The Georgia Standards for the Security of Courthouses can be accessed here.

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