Change agent. Court Administrator Harry Spence hired Jeff Morrow as the Trial Court's new Director of Security with "change in mind," tasking him to infuse the department's existing institutional knowledge and experience with fresh ideas. Since starting last September, Mr. Morrow has worked with his team to enhance professionalism and improve morale throughout the ranks of some 1,000 Trial Court security professionals.
After spending more than 30 years of his career working around the world with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (better known by its acronym, NCIS), Jeff Morrow wanted to come home to New England. Having served as Chief of Staff for NCIS, Mr. Morrow wanted an equally challenging role that would enable him to use his background in public safety and security in law enforcement in new ways.
Security’s new 2014-2015 Strategic Plan and the recently signed contract with NAGE/SEIU (see the Court Bulletin’s June 2014 issue), provide an overall vision and outline of the changes now underway. The Court Bulletin recently asked Mr. Morrow more about Security’s new direction.
Q: What’s been the most eye-opening aspect of your position?
Nothing really "eye-opening" comes to mind — I actually see many similarities between NCIS and this job. Both the Navy and the Trial Court are government organizations, and both departments are part of larger organizations that have broader missions beyond law enforcement and security. Additionally, the principles of criminal justice, physical and personal security don't change, so many of my prior experiences carry over into this one. Likewise, the principles of leadership, managing people, programs, and forming policy are also the same. Both the Trial Court and NCIS are widely-distributed organizations (global and state-wide) whose missions are centrally directed, but locally executed. Good communication up and down the organization and strong local leadership are crucial to getting the mission done well in each courthouse. In that sense, too, communication and local leadership are successful components of a larger organization with a broader mission.
I will say that given the size and complexity of this organization, and the potential threats inherent in court security, things go pretty smoothly most of the time. I credit this to the skill of the officers, whose tactical and communication skills prevent incidents before they escalate, or can quickly neutralize any threats when they do occur.
Q: What would you like Trial Court staff to know about the Security Department?
Our primary mission is to be recognized among the best in court security. Even though we’re adapting much of the newer security and public safety training techniques now in use, and are holding basic training at the State Police Academy, we have no intention of turning Security into a police department. We’re looking instead to provide Court Officers with the tools and skills they need to fulfill the Trial Court’s Security mission: to provide a safe and secure environment for the administration of justice in the Commonwealth’s courts.
I will also say that when it comes to court security, we're already doing many things right. But all high-performing organizations and people focus on self-improvement. Even after winning the Super Bowl, I'm sure [New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick saw weaknesses in his team that he thought needed to be corrected. My opinion is that no matter how good you are, you can always get better. We're trying to accomplish this in Security. Our Strategic Plan spells out what we're doing in more detail.
Q: The new hiring qualifications for Court Officers set off quite a bit of discussion. Employees were very open with you about their concerns. Can you talk a bit about the changes underway?
When I first got here, I noticed that there were different hiring qualifications for Court Officers (COs) and Associate Court Officers (ACOs). They also had different levels of training, authorities, and separate job functions. This created numerous issues that became more obvious when staffing levels became smaller, a reality that affected the entire Trial Court. I heard stories that ACOs couldn’t get promoted to COs, because they were being hired and brought in under different standards, and had job functions limited to security screening. It seemed unfair to me. Security hiring practices were also mentioned in the Harshbarger Report. The report found that a major challenge [for the Trial Court] to overcome was this inability for entry level ACOs to successfully compete for CO positions—but the changes we’re implementing should fix this.
I also saw some limitations with the flexibility of the workforce. For example, we have busy door screenings in the morning, where it will typically take four, five, or more ACOs and COs at our larger courthouses. But, once things slow down at the door, ACOs can’t work in the courtroom or in the lock up because of the limits on their statutory authorities and training. We needed to create a more adaptable model that was a more efficient and productive use of our manpower. I looked at how to transition our Security Department into an all-Court Officer force. What we developed during the last collective bargaining session was a three-tiered Court Officer position that will phase out ACOs over time through the hiring of only Court Officers in the future. Current ACOs will be eligible to compete for CO openings, and I will consider internal applicants for these positions first, before hiring from the outside.
While many things we do in Security are important, the single most critical aspect of our security program is the entry security screening. We have to keep dangerous items out of the courthouses. I wanted to emphasize this by making screening entry part of a Court Officer’s job functions. Entry level Court Officer I’s will focus on entry screening, but will also get experience working courtroom security and in our lock-ups. A Court Officer’s primary duties will evolve more towards courtroom and lock-up security as their tenure increases through the Court Officer II and III levels.
Our Court Officers are the first people the public interact with when they enter our courthouses. In that sense, the COs are the face of the Trial Court, so this function is immensely important. Overall, I think these changes will increase security by placing an emphasis on the important role of entry screening, improve the adaptability of the workforce, by making it more flexible to meet the security needs of the Trial Court, and provide a clear career path for entry level officers.
Q: What’s next on your agenda?
We’re working to continue modernizing our Security force for the 21st century—part of that is by improving our hiring practices and the structure of our Security organization. The other piece is to create a team that can anticipate and meet today’s security threats. Providing the same high quality level of training as others in the public safety community will help us stay current with what’s happening in the industry. Staying a step ahead of the bad guys is an ongoing challenge. The stakes are high: there are frequently violent incidents in courthouses around the nation, including two homicides in 2013, so there’s no room for error. Just because it hasn’t happened here doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t. We have to have the attitude that it’s not a matter of if something happens, it’s a matter of when, and we must do what’s needed to prevent incidents from happening in the first place.
Outlining a Clear Career Path for Court Officers, Security Staff
Over the past year, Mr. Morrow and his team have worked to improve the Security hiring process with defined screening and interview procedures. They’re also in the process of creating a stronger career path that will enable promotion from within the ranks in a fair and balanced way.
Other efforts to revitalize Court Officer education and training include: