Federal Courthouses:

Improved Collaboration Needed to Meet Demands of a Complex Security Environment

GAO-11-857: Published: Sep 28, 2011. Publicly Released: Oct 28, 2011.

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Safe and accessible federal courthouses are critical to the U.S. judicial process. The Federal Protective Service (FPS), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Marshals Service (Marshals Service), within the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), and the General Services Administration (GSA) are the federal stakeholders with roles related to courthouse security. As requested, this report addresses (1) attributes that influence courthouse security considerations and (2) the extent to which stakeholders have collaborated in implementing their responsibilities and using risk management. GAO analyzed laws and documents, such as security assessments; reviewed GAO's work on key practices for collaboration and facility protection; visited 11 courthouse facilities, selected based on geographic dispersion, age, size, and other criteria; and interviewed agency and judiciary officials. While the results from site visits cannot be generalized, they provided examples of courthouse security activities.

Various attributes influence security considerations for the nation's 424 federal courthouses, which range from small court spaces to large buildings in major urban areas. According to DOJ data, threats against the courts have increased between fiscal years 2004 and 2010--from approximately 600 to more than 1,400. The Interagency Security Committee--an interagency group that develops standards for federal facility security--has assigned courthouses the highest security level because they are prominent symbols of U.S. power. Federal stakeholders have taken steps to strengthen their collaboration, such as establishing agency liaisons, but have faced challenges in implementing assigned responsibilities and using risk assessment tools. (1) A 1997 memorandum of agreement (MOA) outlines each stakeholder's roles and responsibilities and identifies areas requiring stakeholder coordination. However, at 5 of the 11 courthouses GAO visited, FPS and the Marshals Service were either performing duplicative efforts (e.g., both monitoring the courthouse lobby) or performing security roles that were inconsistent with their responsibilities. The judiciary and other stakeholders stated that having the Marshals Service and FPS both provide security services has resulted in two lines of authority for implementing and overseeing security services. Updating the MOA that identifies roles and responsibilities could strengthen the multiagency courthouse security framework by better incorporating accountability for federal agencies' collaborative efforts. (2) In 2008, Congress authorized a pilot program, whereby the Marshals Service would assume FPS's responsibilities to provide perimeter security at 7 courthouses. In October 2010, the judiciary recommended that the pilot be expanded. AOUSC noted general consensus among various stakeholders in support of the pilot and estimated the costs of expanding it, but AOUSC did not obtain FPS's views on assessing the pilot results or on how the expansion may affect FPS's mission. Additional analysis on the costs and benefits of this approach and the inclusion of all stakeholder perspectives could better position Congress and federal stakeholders to evaluate expansion options. (3) The Marshals Service has not always completed court security facility surveys (a type of risk assessment), as required by Marshals Service guidance. At 9 of the courthouses GAO visited, the Marshals Service had not conducted these surveys, but Marshals Service officials at some courthouses told us that they assessed security needs as part of their budget development process. However, these assessments are less comprehensive than the court security facility surveys required by Marshals Service guidance. FPS has faced difficulties completing its risk assessments, known as facility security assessments, and recently halted an effort to implement a new system for completing them. Furthermore, GAO found that the Marshals Service and FPS did not consistently share the full results of their risk assessments with each other and key stakeholders. Sharing risk assessment information could better equip federal stakeholders to assess courthouses' security needs and make informed decisions. GAO recommends DHS and DOJ update the MOA to, among other things, clarify stakeholders' roles and responsibilities and ensure the completion and sharing of risk assessments; and further assess costs and benefits of the perimeter pilot program, in terms of enhanced security, and include all stakeholders' views, should steps be taken to expand the program. DHS and DOJ concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Safe and accessible federal courthouses are critical to the U.S. judicial process and four agencies share responsibilities for the security of these courthouses-the General Services Administration (GSA), the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Federal Protective Service (FPS). In 2011 GAO reported that federal stakeholders had defined their courthouse security roles and taken steps to strengthen coordination, but faced continued challenges in securing courthouses. GAO reported that federal stakeholders' efforts to implement their security roles and responsibilities were subject to fragmentation and in some instances duplication in security efforts or stakeholders' performance of security roles inconsistent with their responsibilities identified under a 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). This MOA was reaffirmed in 2004 to acknowledge the transfer of FPS from GSA to the Department of Homeland Security, but no other modifications were made at that time. As such it did not clearly articulate which security responsibilities GSA-which has responsibility for managing all federal courthouses-retained and which specific responsibilities were transferred to DHS. Therefore GAO recommended that the U.S. Marshals Service and FPS jointly lead an effort, in consultation and agreement with the AOUSC and GSA to update the MOA on courthouse security to address these challenges. In 2019 GAO confirmed that the U.S. Marshals Service and FPS had updated the MOA and, with GSA signing the MOA in July 2019, all four federal stakeholders had approved the MOA. The MOA defines each agency's responsibilities for courthouse security and in order to encourage continuing cooperation directs security officials in each agency to sponsor periodic meetings to share ideas and resolve disputes. Additionally, the MOA directs the agencies to establish a Courthouse Security Oversight Panel to coordinate security operations and resolve disputes arising in the field. As a result, the MOA will likely lead to clearer roles and responsibilities and could strengthen the multiagency security framework with greater collaboration and accountability.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General should instruct the Director of FPS, and the Director of the Marshals Service, respectively, to jointly lead an effort, in consultation and agreement with the judiciary and GSA, to update the MOA on courthouse security to address the challenges discussed in this report. Specifically, in this update to the MOA stakeholders should: (1) clarify federal stakeholders' roles and responsibilities including, but not limited to, the conditions under which stakeholders may assume each other's responsibilities and whether such agreements should be documented; and define GSA's responsibilities and determine whether GSA should be included as a signatory to the updated MOA; (2) outline how they will ensure greater participation of relevant stakeholders in court or facility security committees; and (3) specify how they will complete required risk assessments for courthouses, referred to by the Marshals Service as court security facility surveys and by FPS as facility security assessments (FSA), and ensure that the results of those assessments are shared with relevant stakeholders, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Safe and accessible federal courthouses are critical to the U.S. judicial process and four agencies share responsibilities for the security of these courthouses-the General Services Administration (GSA), the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Federal Protective Service (FPS). In 2011 GAO reported that federal stakeholders had defined their courthouse security roles and taken steps to strengthen coordination, but faced continued challenges in securing courthouses. GAO reported that federal stakeholders' efforts to implement their security roles and responsibilities were subject to fragmentation and in some instances duplication in security efforts or stakeholders' performance of security roles inconsistent with their responsibilities identified under a 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). This MOA was reaffirmed in 2004 to acknowledge the transfer of FPS from GSA to the Department of Homeland Security, but no other modifications were made at that time. As such it did not clearly articulate which security responsibilities GSA-which has responsibility for managing all federal courthouses-retained and which specific responsibilities were transferred to DHS. Therefore GAO recommended that the U.S. Marshals Service and FPS jointly lead an effort, in consultation and agreement with the AOUSC and GSA to update the MOA on courthouse security to address these challenges. In 2019 GAO confirmed that the U.S. Marshals Service and FPS had updated the MOA and, with GSA signing the MOA in July 2019, all four federal stakeholders had approved the MOA. The MOA defines each agency's responsibilities for courthouse security and in order to encourage continuing cooperation directs security officials in each agency to sponsor periodic meetings to share ideas and resolve disputes. Additionally, the MOA directs the agencies to establish a Courthouse Security Oversight Panel to coordinate security operations and resolve disputes arising in the field. As a result, the MOA will likely lead to clearer roles and responsibilities and could strengthen the multiagency security framework with greater collaboration and accountability.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General should instruct the Director of FPS, and the Director of the Marshals Service, respectively, to jointly lead an effort, in consultation and agreement with the judiciary and GSA, to update the MOA on courthouse security to address the challenges discussed in this report. Specifically, in this update to the MOA stakeholders should: (1) clarify federal stakeholders' roles and responsibilities including, but not limited to, the conditions under which stakeholders may assume each other's responsibilities and whether such agreements should be documented; and define GSA's responsibilities and determine whether GSA should be included as a signatory to the updated MOA; (2) outline how they will ensure greater participation of relevant stakeholders in court or facility security committees; and (3) specify how they will complete required risk assessments for courthouses, referred to by the Marshals Service as court security facility surveys and by FPS as facility security assessments (FSA), and ensure that the results of those assessments are shared with relevant stakeholders, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our 2011 report on federal courthouse security and the extent to which stakeholders collaborate in implementing their responsibilities and using risk management, we found that federal stakeholders had taken steps to strengthen collaboration, but faced challenges in implementing assigned responsibilities and using risk assessment tools. For example, in 2008, Congress authorized a pilot program whereby the Marshals Service would assume Federal Protective Service (FPS) responsibilities to provide perimeter security at 7 courthouses. In 2010, the judiciary recommended that the pilot be expanded. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) noted general consensus among various stakeholders in support of the pilot and estimated the costs of expanding it, but our work concluded that AOUSC did not obtain FPS's views on assessing the pilot results or on how the expansion may affect FPS's mission. Additional analysis on the costs and benefits of this approach and the inclusion of all stakeholder perspectives could better position Congress and federal stakeholders to evaluate expansion options. We recommended that the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) work collaboratively, in consultation and agreement with the judiciary and General Services Administration (GSA), to further assess costs and benefits, in terms of enhanced security, of expanding the pilot program to other primary courthouses, and assess all stakeholders' views about the pilot program. DOJ and DHS concurred with this recommendation. In 2015, we confirmed that the Marshals Service and FPS formed a working group, consisting of the Marshals Service, AOUSC, and FPS, and GSA to assess the security needs, benefits, challenges, and costs of the Perimeter Pilot program. Subsequently, the Marshals Service, AOUSC, FPS and GSA concluded that given budget constraints, further implementation would be feasible only if the program was cost neutral. Given the costs associated with the program, these stakeholders concluded that it was not feasible to expand the program, a decision that was better informed as a result of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To the extent that steps are taken to expand the perimeter pilot program, the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General should instruct the Director of FPS, and the Director of the Marshals Service, respectively, to work collaboratively, in consultation and agreement with the judiciary and GSA, to further assess costs and benefits, in terms of enhanced security, of expanding the pilot program to other primary courthouses, and assess all stakeholders' views about the pilot program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our 2011 report on federal courthouse security and the extent to which stakeholders collaborate in implementing their responsibilities and using risk management, we found that federal stakeholders had taken steps to strengthen collaboration, but faced challenges in implementing assigned responsibilities and using risk assessment tools. For example, in 2008, Congress authorized a pilot program whereby the Marshals Service would assume Federal Protective Service (FPS) responsibilities to provide perimeter security at 7 courthouses. In 2010, the judiciary recommended that the pilot be expanded. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) noted general consensus among various stakeholders in support of the pilot and estimated the costs of expanding it, but our work concluded that AOUSC did not obtain FPS's views on assessing the pilot results or on how the expansion may affect FPS's mission. Additional analysis on the costs and benefits of this approach and the inclusion of all stakeholder perspectives could better position Congress and federal stakeholders to evaluate expansion options. We recommended that the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) work collaboratively, in consultation and agreement with the judiciary and General Services Administration (GSA), to further assess costs and benefits, in terms of enhanced security, of expanding the pilot program to other primary courthouses, and assess all stakeholders' views about the pilot program. DOJ and DHS concurred with this recommendation. In 2015, we confirmed that the Marshals Service and FPS formed a working group, consisting of the Marshals Service, AOUSC, and FPS, and GSA to assess the security needs, benefits, challenges, and costs of the Perimeter Pilot program. Subsequently, the Marshals Service, AOUSC, FPS and GSA concluded that given budget constraints, further implementation would be feasible only if the program was cost neutral. Given the costs associated with the program, these stakeholders concluded that it was not feasible to expand the program, a decision that was better informed as a result of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To the extent that steps are taken to expand the perimeter pilot program, the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General should instruct the Director of FPS, and the Director of the Marshals Service, respectively, to work collaboratively, in consultation and agreement with the judiciary and GSA, to further assess costs and benefits, in terms of enhanced security, of expanding the pilot program to other primary courthouses, and assess all stakeholders' views about the pilot program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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