Court-Ordered Keys

Improving courthouse security with strong key management

The comings and goings of judges, inmates, attorneys, law enforcement, maintenance staff and others pose a number of safety concerns for courthouses. Part of managing security in these types of settings involves strengthening the role of access control to ensure that all of the various parties within the courthouse remain in the areas they are authorized to enter, allowing security personnel to focus on operational matters. With physical keys still predominant in many if not most public buildings, ensuring that keys to holding cells, courtrooms, file rooms, offices and other sensitive areas are in the possession of only authorized personnel remains a top priority.

The main challenges with key management, whether for courthouses or any number of other applications, revolve around knowing who has a key at any particular time, how long he or she has had it, when it should be returned and if or when it was returned. Given the highly sensitive nature of courthouse keys and the potential security and life safety risks associated with lost or stolen keys—which could extend beyond the courthouse itself to the general public—it is simply not acceptable to leave these questions unanswered.


With a large number and wide variety of individuals requiring access to different parts of a courthouse, key management can become a major challenge. For example, a law clerk might reach for the key to a file room, only to find it missing. In a courtroom setting, information is often needed as quickly as possible; but in order to access files needed for a particular case, he or she would be forced to go through the time-consuming—and incredibly frustrating—process of working with security staff to determine who had the key last, then tracking that person down to retrieve it. These delays could make a real difference in how a case is decided.

This is just one of the more benign examples of the importance of key control and management, which take on even greater importance in emergency planning and preparedness for courthouses. Without adequate means in place for securely storing keys and accurately tracking their use, keys to holding cells, judges’ chambers and other sensitive or restricted locations can become misplaced, resulting in serious breaches of security and elevating the risk a courthouse faces. In an emergency situation, weak or inefficient key management policies could lead to a critical key being missing or create a delay in locating it, both of which could have dangerous consequences.

By its nature, key control is a physical modality; keys are physical objects, and the first step toward securing them is to lock them in a safe location. This fundamental premise and purpose of key management remain the same, but the technology inside today’s key cabinets is quite sophisticated. Digital technology and system integration, coupled with the growth of networked, IP-based systems, have transformed key management capabilities from simple locked cabinets into higher-level management tools that can integrate and communicate with other physical security and operations systems—often without requiring costly upgrades or overhauls. Compatibility with other security and network access systems offers an added richness and usability, as does the integration of key control systems with a courthouse’s existing identification cards. Integration also enables management to deny egress from a courthouse to a user who has taken a specific key until the key is returned.


Implementing a key control and management system is a rather straightforward process that involves a few basic steps: take inventory of the courthouse to identify all access points and installed locks; ascertain the operational needs of employees, visitors, attorneys, service staff and others; and establish a policy with easy-to-follow procedures for effective key control and management.

Key management systems can be tailored to offer a wide variety of options for accessing the keys within the cabinet, including a built-in keypad, fingerprint readers or other biometric technologies, and magnetic or proximity card readers. Going even farther, an advanced key management system ensures that each individual key is secured to an intelligent locking mechanism with built-in memory chip. Data from that chip is stored every time a key is inserted into a key slot within the cabinet.

This allows key control and management systems to provide up-to-date and reliable information that can be accessed quickly, making it possible for personnel to proceed with established procedures in an emergency or other situation. For example, if prisoners must be moved from one holding area to another because of an emergency, doing so quickly and efficiently can depend on how quickly keys to each area and its cells can be located. Immediate confirmation of where keys are or identifying who has possession of them can make a big difference in terms of safety and security.

The driving force behind the evolution of today’s robust key management systems has been the development of advanced application software, which enables systems to be virtually hardwareagnostic in terms of configuration and integration with access control and other security and business systems and technologies. The software provides users with tremendous versatility to control the system and maximize its reporting and programmable access capabilities.


The advanced notification functionality enabled by software and integration includes the ability to send alerts that contain a high level of information. A key management system can typically be set up to send email and/or SMS alerts to specific recipients. For example, a user might receive an alert with the location of a specified key, what keys an individual has that have not been returned, and when the keys will become overdue.

Key management system software can also run a wide range of activity reports, sort based on different criteria, view and print reports, and more. These capabilities make it possible for system managers to generate reports and then analyze the information to maintain maximum control of access and security issues.

Given the range of conventional applications for key/lock systems and the cost-effectiveness of these devices, the need for physical keys will continue to play a significant role in courthouses’ overall security strategies. That said, today’s key management systems provide cutting-edge solutions that maintain strict accountability for keys, limit key duplication and distribution, and incorporate leading-edge software that provides advanced insight into key use. Email reports detailing which keys are in or out and who has/had them keeps security personnel and other stakeholders informed and up to date.

In an emergency, the speed with which this allows keys to be located is critical. Following an incident, the system can quickly provide specific details, which can be combined with audit data from an access control system and/ or video from a surveillance system to provide a strong evidence trail. Today’s robust key management systems offer the control, flexibility and scalability to help courthouses to ensure the highest level of security for the various individuals who pass through their halls.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Security Today.


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