PROJECT: Court Security and Emergency Preparedness Planning
8th District Courthouse, Vernal, UT

Ouachita County Courthouse, Camden, AR

Marion County Courthouse, Hannibal, MO

Meeting with Alaska state court officials

Mojave County Courthouse, Kingman, AZ


As a Senior Fellow of American University's Justice Projects Office I was Court Security Consultant on this recent project, traveling throughout eight states and working with more than twenty communities to assist local courts initiate and refine security and emergency preparedness plans. The project, which  concentrated on courts in rural and small urban communities, found them to share many problems, particularly in bringing their needs and special responsibilities to the attention of their local governments.

An unusual but extremely important project for courts, its subject has become even more pressing since the disasters of Katrina and Rita. The complexities of scale, too often  ignored in disaster planning, have lent emphasis to its scope; we simply cannot expect to rely on the communications and emergency services that normally are at our disposal when they are as much subject to destruction as those courthouses and their services we are trying to protect.

The topics we covered may be found in a report (in PDF format) available here, together with a group of recommendations and observations which are likely to be of interest to courts in large as well as small jurisdictions.

To the left are photographs of some of the courthouses and locations included in our visits. Though those shown here are relatively small buildings in small communities, the large complexes in St. Louis and Salt Lake City also participated in the project. The meetings in Alaska, which included representatives from jurisdictions throughout the state, were held at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Anchorage.

Quoting from the publication: "Consultant Lawrence Siegel identified and addressed the special circumstances that rural courts are likely to encounter in the face of an emergency:

  • Who has the decision-making authority to declare an emergency and activate a plan when most courthouses in rural areas are occupied by multiple court and non-court users?
  • How does the frequent geographic dispersion of court facilities and resources in rural areas affect the court’s ability to communicate a unified message to employees, users, and the public, following an emergency?
  • What kind of planning and collaboration is required to ensure continued court functioning in the post-emergency period in rural areas where a single district might be comprised of several county courts?

While the Guideline is designed primarily to assist rural trial courts in developing and implementing emergency preparedness and response plans, it also provides step-by-step information that can be used by all courts that are interested in developing or reviewing plans. Topics include:

  • Developing interagency relationships and agreements
  • Designating decision-making authority
  • Creating a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP)
  • Prioritizing case management issues in the post-emergency period
  • Establishing effective and reliable communication strategies
  • Training for emergencies and testing plans

The Guideline is also appended with helpful materials such as: a needs-assessment planning tool, a description of hypothetical scenarios, and an annotated bibliography of planning resources."

For those in the several thousand smaller courts who are interested in helping to protect their own courts and communities, this publication is highly recommended.