Court Security and Business Continuity in Lean Budget Times: A Collaborative Systems Approach

Many courts are challenged to maintain high levels of court security and business continuity plans with increasingly limited resources. Drawing on the experience of an urban court, the Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County (the superior court), a collaborative systems approach can help courts leverage available resources and reengineer essential security services.

Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer
Court Administrator, Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County


Amid the continuing economic recession, court leaders are confronted with deep, multiyear funding cuts and difficult budget decisions regarding court security and business continuity planning. Cutbacks in court security budgets would seem unthinkable, given the generally enhanced awareness of security vulnerabilities and the growing number of security threats documented in some jurisdictions. Yet an informal review reveals budget pressures and potential security staff reductions in several state and local jurisdictions, with no prospects of recovery in the foreseeable future.1

In written testimony submitted to the United States House of Representatives’ Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, in his capacity as president of the Conference of Chief Justices, stated:

"Even though we do not have quantitative data, it is the perception of the state court leadership that the number and severity of these threats and security incidents have been increasing in recent years. Furthermore, given that the state courts try approximately 96 million cases per year, the opportunities for incidents and the magnitude of the problem cannot be overstated. . . .

[M]ost local governments struggle to meet day-to-day operations of running their governments and have little options to improve or implement new security measures in courthouses. Because there is no adequate funding source, many courts report that they have no formal security plan (Bell, 2007: 4, 5)."

Recognizing the many facets of court security and emergency preparedness, this article addresses strategies for court security process reengineering and business  court continuity planning in trial courts. The 2006 report “A National Strategic Plan for Judicial Branch Security” is instructive in discussing the scope and definition of such planning, stating:

[I]nitial work on identifying guidelines and other resources focus first on physical and personal safety, a concern of all court security efforts. Subsequent efforts in more specialized court security areas, such as continuity of operations and cyber security, can draw from work already underway by other experts and groups concerned with these issues (Casey, 2006: 1, n. 4).

Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County Security Incidents: 2006 through 2010

Budget Pressures in Maricopa County

In Maricopa County, Arizona, the superior court’s security department has undergone sizable budget reductions during a time of increased threats against the judicial branch and growing concern over the continuity of business operations.  Last year, serving a population of 4 million residents, the superior court screened some 3.7 million court visitors and confiscated more than 34,000 weapons and 60,000 prohibited items in 53 court and probation buildings across the county.  Although the number of people screened over the past five years has remained fairly constant, the court has witnessed a steady combined increase in the number of weapons and prohibited items confiscated, as well as a consistent increase in threats against judges/staff and bomb threats.

In Maricopa County, the superior court’s security department is responsible for building entry screening at all court/probation facilities. The sheriff’s department provides an armed presence at building entrances and transports inmates for the superior and justice courts.

Court Security and Business Continuity Planning

Security and Business Continuity Planning: A Collaborative Systems Approach

The court administration literature advocates creation of standing court security and business continuity committees, development of comprehensive plans, periodic security audits, drills, and strong executive leadership (see Raftery, 2007; NACM 2006, 2005). Presiding judges and court managers serve in a critically important “convenor” role, bringing together limited- and general-jurisdiction courts, state and local stakeholders, and funding bodies. This collaborative systems approach facilitates cross-court coordination (city, county, and state courts), while also leveraging city/county law-enforcement resources and expertise. Business-process reengineering opportunities are identified, implemented, and evaluated within the planning framework.

In recent years, security and business continuity coordination in Maricopa County has evolved from an internal, annual-planning exercise to an ongoing, broad-based collaborative process. Central to this approach is the recognition of all involved stakeholders, in both the delivery and the receipt of court services, and a closely managed, continuous improvement process.

As the level of trust between court managers and stakeholders has grown, so too has the number of planning committees and workgroups. A decade ago, stakeholder involvement was limited to formal quarterly meetings of a security committee, an advisory body to the presiding judge. While this kind of meeting is still convened on an as-needed basis, the planning process has become far more inclusive and active with frequent interaction of stakeholders. A constellation of court convened, multiagency workgroups meets regularly to address operations plans for a new criminal courthouse, business continuity planning, technology, evacuation procedures, and supporting drills.

Collaborative Business Process Reengineering

 The collaborative systems approach promotes joint identification of security vulnerabilities and organizational problems, including duplication and fragmentation of services. Jurisdictions adopting this approach may discover new opportunities for organizational restructuring, business process reengineering, and interbranch emergency preparedness planning. Some joint reengineering efforts may yield substantial budget savings, while other initiatives stand to enhance public safety at current resource levels.

The courts and justice agencies in Maricopa County have transitioned to this collaborative systems approach, largely out of necessity, given rapid growth in county population and pressing demands for service. Through this approach, the superior court has managed to maintain essential security functions and to enhance business continuity planning amid budget cutbacks. In large part, this has been achieved through the strong support of the court’s primary funding body (the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors) and partnerships with other system stakeholders. Some proposed ventures have proven unworkable, including the outsourcing of security services, a proposed court security user fee, and a centralized entrance for the entire downtown court complex. Discussions with stakeholders have proven invaluable in vetting these options and averting costly missteps.

Collectively, the following joint initiatives have coalesced to reduce operational costs and strengthen the superior court’s security and business continuity program during a protracted period of fiscal stress.

Consolidation of Limited- and General-Jurisdiction Security Functions

Several years ago, the court merged two separate security departments serving the justice and superior courts, reaping economies of scale in management staffing and greater consistency in governing policies. These consolidation efforts have proven particularly cost-effective when staffing new, colocated regional court centers serving both levels of court (limited jurisdiction and general jurisdiction/trial) and adult and juvenile probation services. The resulting staffing efficiency was twofold. First, colocation of courts required deployment of fewer security officers to a centralized location than would have been needed for several outlying areas.  Second, colocation resulted in an on-site presence of armed sheriff’s deputies at the centralized location, thereby providing elevated security, which would not have been possible at dispersed locations.

From time to time, through intergovernmental agreements (IGAs), the superior court has provided centralized security staffing for some of the municipal courts located in Maricopa County on a contractual fee-for-service basis.2

Consolidation of Court Security and Business Continuity Planning

In recent years, the overlap of court security and business continuity planning has become readily apparent to all involved. With the merger of these two planning functions in the superior court’s security department, coordination with first responders has been improved and staff time associated with duplicative committees has been virtually eliminated. The resulting security and business continuity plans and communications with court staff are also more coherent than those separately administered in the past. The superior court’s security department is working closely with the Supreme Court of Arizona’s Administrative Office of the Courts to develop coordinated business continuity plans, including preparedness for pandemic flu.

Sister Court Program

Through monthly meetings of the superior court’s presiding judge and municipal court presiding judges/administrators, some limited-jurisdiction courts have agreed to temporarily house court operations for neighboring courts in the event of an extended building closure. With these arrangements in place, the courts ensure continuity of business operations in the event of a disaster (e.g., flood, fire,  or building systems shutdown) or a major security breach. For example, when the Surprise Municipal Court was closed down due to the presence of a suspicious white powdery substance, court operations were temporarily moved to the superior court’s nearby Northwest Regional Court facility.

System Assessments Conducted by “Outside” Experts

The superior court has brought in the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the National Center for State Courts to perform security assessments on large facilities, including regional sites. As a result, court policies and the roles of the various security personnel have been clarified and strengthened, and audit checklists have been completed for the buildings. These measures have, in turn, improved staff utilization and increased efficiency.

Identified in the system assessment plans were deficiencies in building facilities, security systems, and supporting infrastructure. Working with county management, the superior court has embarked on a series of recommended facility repairs and system upgrades. A recent example involved the installation of electronic card readers and video/intercom phones (air-phones) in older court buildings, much needed enhancements costing approximately $80,000. The current budget crisis notwithstanding, these small-to-mid-sized projects fit well into the county’s capital improvement plan, which allocates substantial one-time outlays for facilities.

Court security assessments in various states have recognized that as courthouses become more secure, assailants move their attacks away from the courtroom to less secure locations. The assessments now consider security and travel to judge/staff parking areas, setback areas adjacent to court facilities, bollards, and building perimeters. The superior court is considering screening judges’ cars in the underground parking garage of a new criminal tower scheduled to open in 2012.3

Partnering with Law Enforcement to Leverage Federal Funds

Maricopa County secured $250,000 in Homeland Defense grant funding through a joint project with the sheriff’s office to acquire a high-speed gate/metal plate for an underground entrance to one of the older court buildings. Other joint applications for federal funding are being sought through McJustice, a countywide justice-planning consortium currently led by the superior court’s presiding judge.

Closure of Doors and Single-Point-of-Entry Screening 

Through a process of continuous review and redesign of the Central Courthouse main lobby to add additional screening stations, the Maricopa County courts have now closed secondary entry doors (mainly doors apart from the main building entrances and judges/staff entrances) to most of its 53 buildings. Collectively, these closures and redesigned circulation patterns have saved over $700,000 annually in staff (14 positions eliminated) and in screening-equipment maintenance. Such cost savings, as well as the conversion of full-time positions to part-time positions, help court administration to balance the security budget, concurrently allowing the court to redeploy existing staff to locations requiring additional coverage (e.g., locations with a single security officer and no back-up coverage) or to a high-volume screening station plagued by long lines of waiting court visitors.4

Programming and Design of New Court Facilities

States and counties fortunate enough to build or enhance court facilities during the economic downturn are making transformational security improvements. In Maricopa County, judges and court management staff are actively involved in the development of the court’s ten-year master space plan, decisions on new courthouse/office locations, and security programming. Scheduled to open for operations in February 2012, the superior court’s new criminal court tower will have 50-foot security setbacks where feasible; separate circulation patterns for the public, judges, staff, jurors, victims, and inmates; negative-air-pressure rooms; an off-site mail-screening station; a new centralized control room supporting all court locations; and extensive use of advanced technologies, e.g., video monitoring, motion detectors, high-capacity inmate-transportation elevators, and victim-waiting areas with video viewing of court proceedings.

Court Security Awareness and Training

Court security training is also enriched by cross-agency initiatives, sharing of staff expertise, and joint procedures development. The superior court has enlisted representatives of the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the sheriff’s office to provide educational programs for judges, court staff, and security personnel. Conversely, the court’s security personnel serve as faculty for statewide security training and other cross-agency initiatives. This type of collaboration is also extended to “table top” exercises for business continuity planning and debriefing of bomb threats/building evacuations, with the immediate incorporation of “lessons learned” in training curricula.5

Security Networks

The Supreme Court of Arizona has created a statewide security network to improve security incident reporting. In addition, the superior court participates in security partnerships with local law enforcement, county and city officials, and the sheriff’s office security department. The group plans to include other state officials, as well as community representatives from large businesses (the Downtown Phoenix Partnership).6


In the court security and business continuity arenas, the collaborative systems approach provides a practical way to leverage all available resources of sister courts, law-enforcement entities, and court stakeholders. This approach fosters a sense of shared responsibility for critical security functions, mainly through ongoing dialogue and joint business-process-reengineering ventures. Should court security budget cutbacks occur, the court’s downsized security program can be closely coordinated with local law enforcement and first-responder services. The collaborative systems approach also helps to ensure that court security managers are  fully briefed on the critical court security functions of partner agencies and their respective business continuity plans. This collaborative systems approach stands to bolster court security and public safety, particularly in lean budget times.