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Handling High Profile Cases

Steve Wheatcroft
Judicial Services Unit of the Court Services Division, Los Angeles Sheriff's Department
And
Mike Parker
Unit Commander of the Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau, Los Angeles Sheriff's Department

Whether it's the murder trial of Charles Manson in 1969, OJ Simpson in 1994, or Phil Spector in 2008, high profile cases are an ongoing part of the courts of Los Angeles County. While the public is fascinated by the news coverage, handling related court security is a tremendous challenge.

The Court Services Division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department handles all aspects of court security for the 48 courts of the largest court system in the nation. Sheriff Lee Baca has commented, "Policing the courts is a big task. It takes consistency, professionalism, and flexibility to get the job done well."

High Profile

High profile cases in courthouses are treated differently from handling high security cases such as gang members, drug dealers, or "third-strikers." High profile cases can range from celebrities, politicians, criminals who commit heinous crimes, and political issues. Understanding your mission and risks are important as you coordinate your plans.

Judicial Services Unit

Decades of experience with hundreds of high profile cases give the ten deputies of the Judicial Services Unit the unique opportunity to continuously learn new ways to prepare for such cases. This expertise is used to assist court operations with the planning and implementation of a media strategy for such cases, to learn new lessons with each case, and adapt to the changes that come with time and technology.

Ask the Media for their Cooperation

These cases will generate a great deal of interest from the media. Obtaining the media's cooperation with the court process, while maintaining court security, is one of our highest priorities. Creating a defined "media area" is vital to the success of any operation. Many members of the media are very assertive, bordering on aggressive, while also being very competitive with each other. When the press is not confined to an area, they will try to get the best possible shot by jockeying for position, crossing barricades or hiding from security. Often, media representatives or paparazzi will purposely block each other, and impede the progress of the high profile individual attempting to access the courthouse. With spectators taking the opportunity to get a photo, solid planning can avoid a lot of chaos.

Public Information Officers

Designated sheriff's deputies or court officers along with Public Information Officers from your department or the court should be assigned as soon as you learn that a high profile case is coming to your courthouse. These deputies should be assigned for the duration of the case to maintain continuity and consistent communication with the high profile individual and news media. The assigned deputies will need to help with media issues and assist with the arrival and departure of the high profile individual.

Court Orders Issued to the Media

One useful method to gain compliance and ensure that the judiciary is able to maintain proper courthouse decorum is to seek a court order. The order is signed by the supervising judge and identifies areas where the media is authorized to film at the courthouse. Court orders are to be signed prior to the hearings, and copies are dispersed to members of the media through the Public Information Officer.

Designated Media Area

Freedom of the Press is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which we are all sworn to protect. The designated and credentialed media will usually work with you and cooperate if given the opportunity to do so. Tape or rope off designated areas for the media. When considering the media area, avoid a location where jurors, witnesses, or others members of the public can be seen. This will assist in containing the media to a more controlled area and possibly avoid a frenzy, while still allowing for camerapersons and reporters to have the opportunity to take photos and seek sound bites. "If you create the proper space for the media, you can avoid a lot of even bigger challenges," said Chief Richard Barrantes, LASD Court Services Division.

Ingress/Egress

Designate specific deputies or officers to assist with the ingress and egress of the affected parties. For security considerations, you must evaluate all of the possible entrances and exits of the Courthouse. Weapons screening requirements at all Courthouses remain in place, and all parties who enter the Courthouse must pass through the search portal. Once you designate a path of travel for the high profile individual, ensure the designated media area is nearby.

Often celebrities hire their own private security to escort them to and from court. Personal security shall not be allowed to be armed in the Courthouse even if they have a concealed weapons permit. They need to check their weapons at the screening area and retrieve them when exiting the Courthouse. Remember, deputies and court officers are responsible for security at the Courthouse, no one else.

Communicate

Vital to the success of these operations is good communication between court administrators, sheriff's deputies, the high profile defendant/plaintiff, and the news media. Confirming arrival and departure times and specifying where to enter and exit the Courthouse for the high profile individual is paramount.

During a recent court hearing for an extremely well known female pop star at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, the pop star was very uncooperative as to alerting deputies when and where she would be arriving at court. She refused to comply with directions, which created significant difficulties for deputies due to the large crowds, massive media presence and unruly paparazzi. Due to the chaos that transpired, as the pop star left the courthouse, she was overwhelmed by a throng of paparazzi and fans, and a member of the sheriff's department was injured in an effort to prevent injuries to others.

When you have a high profile case pending, call a meeting with everyone involved with security. This includes the Judicial Officer, Court Administrator, and Public Information Officer. The local police agency should also be included as this will have a major impact on neighborhood traffic on adjacent streets and the courthouse perimeter.

Judiciary Security

High profile cases often have consequences for the judicial officer. Therefore, security arrangements for the judge involved in the case is often a good idea. During a former football star's murder trial, the judge himself became an unintended celebrity, and had difficulty even going to the market without being recognized and approached by members of the public. Another judge who handled the sentencing of a pop culture celebrity received thousands of emails and internet blogs, some of which were not positive. Discuss with the judicial officer options such as additional patrol checks, 24 hour security, or other protective services you are able to provide.

Be Prepared

Make sure to have an operations plan detailing the duties of everyone who is involved. These types of cases can occur very quickly, so be prepared. You don't have to wait for a high profile case in your courthouse to prepare for it. You can always have a general plan ready in advance for each courthouse. As always, you don't have to get ready, if you are ready.

About The Authors:
Sergeant Steve Wheatcroft is a 30 year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, with 20 years of experience with the Judicial Services Unit of the Court Services Division. Captain Mike Parker is a 25 year veteran and unit commander of the Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau, which includes media relations. For more information visit www.lasd.org.



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