Personal Safety

Caution signs piled one on top of the other.

Keeping Personal Security in Perspective and in Focus


What Can Judges Do RIGHT Now?


Striking a balance between one’s professional and personal life is an ongoing battle, one driven by ever changing priorities and compromises. We all make choices about what to put on the “back burner” in order to get through the business of the day or the week while hoping to still have time and energy to enjoy some semblance of a normal life. Tasks or responsibilities that, at the moment, may not be pressing or urgent are delegated to the bottom of the never ending “to do” list and we go on with our “normal” lives.But for those in at-risk professions like judges, the norm is quite different. The majority of professionals perform their work with little notoriety beyond their immediate sphere of influence. Judges perform their work in the spotlight of the public eye, making decisions or taking actions that have consequences reaching far beyond the immediate audience. Those consequences can be life altering in many ways – many of them tremendously negative. So, quite naturally, the norm for those working in at risk positions is quite different from those who do not. Tasks or responsibilities that others have the luxury of shuffling to the bottom of their list of priorities quite naturally require greater emphasis by those who are subject to heightened risks.

This is especially true when it comes to personal security. For those who are least likely to face a specific and purposeful threat– a demographic that includes the vast majority of professionals – the low priority assigned to personal security is likely to be of little consequence to them or their families. The exact opposite is true for many judges. The risks that come with the job are real and persistent. Because these threats are often driven by emotion or an emotional contagion, they have a tendency to evolve very rapidly. It is for these very reasons that personal security awareness and individual preventative measures must become the norm for those who are at risk, rather than something to think about later.

For those who wait until a threat is upon them to ask the question “what can I do right now?” the answer is typically not one they want to hear. Why? History shows that when personal security doesn’t makes it to the top of the to-do list until a threat presents itself, options are likely to be limited. These measures may irrevocably impinge upon the very comfort zone that serves as a sanctuary and helps us to maintain a normal existence. The unintended consequence of “worrying about security later” or “when there is a reason to” is that once you have faced that imminent threat, the apprehension that accompanies it can be pervasive and invasive, changing the “norm” forever.

What can judges do right now, before a serious and credible threat presents itself, to minimize the risks and increase the range of available options? The best place to start is at the beginning, adopting behaviors that will lower your profile and improve the potential to identify an evolving threat before it becomes a headline grabbing attack. Here are five things you can do right now to better protect yourself against potential threats:

Embrace the Attackers Perspective. An attack is much more likely to occur when the target is the most accessible and vulnerable, which in many cases, is away from the courthouse. For instance, there is typically far less depth to the security in and around the residence than there is at the workplace, making it all the more likely that an attack will occur there as opposed to the workplace. To gain this critical perspective, you need to:

  • Know what they know. Can a potential attacker find your address through open sources, i.e. Google or some other search engine, online media coverage or announcements, etc.?  What about the addresses of your adult children, or the schools your younger children attend? The way to find this out is to look for you and to look in the same places an attacker might. It’s wise to search not only the readily accessible information repositories but also to invest a few dollars and conduct a search through any one of a number of commercially available, online information providers. It is not uncommon to find sensitive information that has been gleaned from some rather innocuous sources (like publisher subscription records) is being made widely available to anyone with a valid credit card and access to an Internet connection.                                               
  • Know what you look like to an attacker. Does your daily routine make you predictable and therefore more vulnerable? If your car is parked in the same spot every day, and you depart for, or return from, work at the same time every day, how difficult would it be for someone to recognize just how accessible and vulnerable you are at that time and place? That’s just one of the questions an attacker might need to answer in order to choose their target and plan a successful attack, and is the same sort of question you should be asking yourself. Similar questions should be answered about every predictable pattern your schedule creates. If you routinely visit a particular event or location, such as the same association meeting the first Tuesday of every month, who else knows this and do they know this to be sensitive information? Or could a simple phone call and a plausible pretext allow anyone to find this out?
  • Expand Your Protective Boundary. Without a doubt, common precautions like a well-designed and professionally installed home alarm system are an essential element of an effective personal safety and security program. However, they have some inherent limitations. Such measures only protect you in the confines of your home and they are purely reactive, triggered only when an intruder has breached the boundary. On the other hand, proactive measures serve to identify the threat long before it makes its way to the front door. Once you’re outside the protective boundary created by courthouse security and home alarm systems you are often on your own, both figuratively and literally. In order to expand the existing protective boundary, you must:
  • Become more familiar with your surroundings. This is particularly important in the environments that surround predictable locations such as the residence or frequently visited locations. Building familiarity requires an understanding of the normal type and level of activity in those environments, at those times when you are most likely to be there. Once you have that understanding, changes in the environment will be more likely to catch your attention. For example, do you know when you leave your first-Tuesday-of-every-month meeting whether or not the parking lot is usually empty, except for the seven or eight vehicles belonging to fellow meeting participants? What if, when you’re leaving the meeting the day after you ruled in a controversial and contentious case, you see a car parked in a dark corner of the lot, facing toward the door you always use? Would you even be likely to notice this change in the environment, or the fact that it may represent a personal security risk? The reality is that unless you are familiar with your environment, the indicators and warning signs of an evolving threat may be missed altogether. Taking just a few minutes to study your surroundings when you find yourself entering or leaving those predictable locations goes a long way toward building the level of familiarity needed to recognize subtle changes that may portend increased risk. This behavior projects a level of security awareness that has a certain deterrent value, as it is unlikely to go unnoticed by a potential attacker.
  • Create a network of “sensors.” While most attacks against members of the judiciary are not preceded by any type of warning, like all attacks against individuals they are accompanied by certain pre-attack activities. These provide an opportunity to detect and deter a potential threat. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for someone who is not solely dedicated to this task to pay absolute attention to the myriad locations where these activities may take place. However, it is possible to enlist others to serve as sensors – a means of detecting unusual activity or behavior – particularly in those environments where you are most accessible and vulnerable. This network may include neighbors, co-workers, the parking garage attendant and, perhaps most importantly, family members. How much, or what, information you decide to provide those in your network depends on how well you know them, what it is they have the opportunity to observe and how much trust you feel you can place in them. What and how much you tell them is far less important than ensuring they know that it is important for them to communicate critical information to you. For instance, if the parking garage attendant sees someone hanging around until right after you leave for work, you want to know that. Or if a co-worker overhears a stranger making inquires at the deli across the street from the courthouse after you leave, you want the deli owner to tell you. When it comes to family members, it is crucial to recognize that they may be targeted, so keeping them informed of any security issues or concerns is vital to both your security and theirs. Unfortunately, the value of building such a network is often overlooked. This  can lead to tragic situations when indications or warning signs had been noticed, but were not recognized as such. Or worse yet, despite being noticed, the observer didn’t know what to do with the information.
  • Take Ownership of Your Personal Safety & Security. There are mechanisms available to most members of the judiciary that provide for increased protection against a known threat. However, those mechanisms are typically only triggered once a serious, credible threat has been received. Little, if any overt warning, such as a threatening letter or telephone call, precedes the vast majority of attacks occurring outside of the relatively secure confines of the workplace. These mechanisms offer little in the way of prevention and deterrence. In reality, unless someone notices an indicator or warning sign of a potential threat it is unlikely that these mechanisms will be brought to bear until after an attack is attempted; this may be of little comfort to the intended target. Ultimately, responsibility for implementing proactive security strategies lies with you – the at-risk individual. Going about one’s daily routine, judges can inadvertently create vulnerabilities and accessibility that an attacker can exploit, given enough time. The question is this. What are you prepared to do with the time afforded by the pre-attack activities that accompany every threat? You can choose to put personal security at the bottom of your “to do” list, quite possibly squandering the best and only opportunity to prevent an actual attack. Or, you can take ownership of the issue by acknowledging the risks that accompany your profession: embrace the attacker’s perspective, expand your protective boundary and make the most of any opportunity to identify a potential threat and thwart the attack before it happens. The choice is yours to make.