Court Safety and Personal Security

By Captain Tim Fox, Oregon State Police

The prevalence of violence against judges has been escalating in American society. Judges are at risk because they are perceived to threaten people’s family or home life, their income or employment, and their pride or self-image. The common-sense advice that follows can help keep you safe.

Parties appearing before you may sometimes exhibit aggressive behavior. Aggressive behavior is typically reactive. It’s a reaction to things said or done that the party perceives as a threat. That aggressive behavior, if left unchecked, can result in violence against the judge.

A judge’s typical response to a party who is out of control is to call attention to the inappropriate behavior; however, this technique can sometimes make the situation worse rather than better. To deescalate aggressive behavior that occurs during the course of a hearing, and the violence that might result from that behavior, use the HEART technique:

H – Hear them out. Listen to why they are so upset. Let them tell their story.

E – Empathize. Let them know that you understand why they feel angry and threatened.

A – Ask questions. Show interest in them. Affirm your interest and understanding of their feelings.

R – Respond in a way that is calming. An angry or overly authoritative response makes matters worse.

T – Thank them for sharing their story with you. Thank them for regaining control of their emotions.

It is myth that it is the person who is outwardly aggressive is more likely to do you physical harm.  Violence against judges can be targeted and predatory.

One clue to identifying the predatory party is to carefully review correspondence addressed to you.  If you are contacted by mail, by email, or if a note is left for you, look for the following indicators of predatory behavior: any reference to a special history between you and the party or to “destiny”; any religious or historical themes in the correspondence; any threats to commit suicide or any mention of death; an obsessive desire to contact you; a mention of a debt that is owed; any reference to persons who have been attacked or who have carried out attacks; any mention of or evidence of mental illness.

Because targeted or predatory behavior is more difficult to predict or detect, it is best to prepare for it assuming that it could happen at any time—because it can. Below are some useful tips to protect you from predatory or targeted violence.

Security tips for information technology devices and/or social media:

  • Be discreet about personal information. Be careful with whom you share any personal data.
  • Delete all emails that have personal information as soon as you have read them.
  • When you turn away from your computer or put down your cell phone, log out or turn it off.
  • Discuss posting on social media with your kids—they can be targeted, too.
  • Don’t post photos with objects in the background that could provide personal information.
  • Never use the geolocation features of social media to indicate where you are at any time.

Security tips for your workplace:

  • Park in a well-lit area.
  • Do not park in a reserved parking spot that identifies you as a judge.
  • Do not leave your court ID or any other identifying information in your vehicle.
  • Leave the building from a rear or side door.
  • Pause to scan the parking lot and check your surroundings before moving toward your vehicle.
  • Try to enter and leave the building in teams of two or more, particularly if it’s dark outside.
  • Unlock doors immediately before reaching your vehicle.
  • Quickly scan the interior of the vehicle before getting into it.
  • Once you enter the vehicle, lock it and keep it locked.

Security tips for travel/vehicular safety:

  • Do not use vanity plates or display bumper stickers that might give a clue to your identity.
  • Do not announce travel plans in court (when docketing) or put that information on in/out boards.
  • If a vehicle is following your vehicle, do not confront the follower, do not drive recklessly, and do not drive home; go to a police station.
  • Vary times and routes when driving to and from your office.

Security tips for your residence:

  • Be alert to unexpected changes in and around your home.
  • Do not hide keys anywhere outside your home.
  • Keep shrubs trimmed around windows or doorways to prevent concealment.
  • Use solid core doors with deadbolt locks and a peephole.
  • Don’t open the door until you know who it is (use the peephole).
  • Keep doors and windows locked.
  • Secure sliding doors with pins to prevent horizontal and vertical movement.
  • Draw all curtains and blinds during evening hours.
  • Illuminate dark areas outside your home (motion-detector lights work well).
  • Install an alarm system with a battery backup.
  • Do not put your name on any exterior mailbox at your home.

Finally, have a plan in case a situation arises in which you feel threatened. Make sure your staff knows what that plan is. Select special code words (words that would seem innocuous to the aggressive party) and share them with your staff. Tell your staff that if you utter those words from the bench, or if you call from your chambers or elsewhere and utter those words, it means that you feel you are in danger and they need to send help.

Above all, don’t panic. Keep calm and use your common sense.

NJC News