The Big Story Blog

Metal detectors not a given at Minn. courthouses

Posted at 5:14 PM on December 16, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Public Safety

Here's MPR News reporter's Elizabeth Dunbar's detailed look at the courthouse security issue in the wake of the Cook County courthouse shootings.

Authorities in Cook County said are reevaluating their security measures after a shooting Thursday left three people injured.

The county's courthouse, located in the small city of Grand Marais, doesn't have a metal detector. The device likely could have kept 42-year-old Daniel Schlienz from allegedly bringing a handgun into the courthouse and shooting the prosecutor, a witness and the bailiff.

But Sheriff Mark Falk said there's a reason the county doesn't have a courthouse metal detector.

"We're a small community. We've got limited resources, limited funding," he said during a news conference on Friday, where authorities gave more details about the previous day's incident.

John Kostouros, spokesman for the Minnesota courts system, said "most" courthouses around the state do have metal detectors, though some only have them at entrances to the courtrooms. He did not have an exact number, explaining that sheriff's departments, and not the courts, are in charge of security at courthouses.

MPR News conducted survey of 37 of Minnesota's 87 counties and found that 25 of them had metal detectors, but some of those only use them in certain situations.

Because installing a metal detector in a courthouse involves both the expense of the device and the staffing of it, some counties have chosen to use one selectively, said Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association.

The association provides training for county court staff to improve security, which involves figuring out which court cases might carry additional risk.

"What we are teaching is how to predict and what factors to look for in trying to determine which cases might be emotionally charged, which cases might be subject to high involvement of potential risk," he said.

Franklin said the majority of courthouses in rural Minnesota don't have metal detectors, but he said the association doesn't keep track of each county's courthouse security measures. Those without metal detectors include counties like Aitkin, Swift, Traverse and Yellow Medicine, according to MPR's survey.

Training can help counties without metal detectors, Franklin said, but there's no funding for that, either.

"We've developed all of this with virtually no budget, no funding," he said, adding that the state doesn't provide courthouse security funding, so counties must decide on their own whether to commit the money.

Even before the shooting in Cook County, security has been a concern at county courthouses. In 2008, authorities shot a man who brandished a gun during a standoff at a Morrison County board meeting.

The Minnesota County Attorney's Association just last week looked into recommending whether prosecutors should be able to carry handguns. The group ultimately decided not to take a position on the issue, executive director John Kingrey said.

"They're all over the map," Kingrey said of the county attorneys. Some were concerned about how far such a proposal would go and whether all court staff would end up wanting to be armed.

"How does this get spill out and get bigger than it needs to be?" he said.

Kingrey said he hopes counties will look at their security measures without making rash decisions, especially given the expense of staffing a metal detector full time.

"We need to be careful not to overreact. Obviously it's a tragic situation, but there needs to be a measured response," he said.

Several attorneys and court workers who responded to an inquiry through MPR's Public Insight Network said they've been surprised security wasn't tighter at county courthouses.

"I am most of the time shocked by the lack of security in many of our courthouses. And I am shocked by a lack of consistency in security," said attorney John Baker, who noted that Dakota County's main courthouse in Hastings has a metal detector but smaller courthouses in the county do not.

Patricia Buss, who works on family court matters mostly in Dakota County, said family court can carry bigger safety risks than criminal court.

"On several occasions I've seen people exhibit extreme anger and tantrum-like behavior at the courthouse. I personally think of the risks every time I walk into the courthouses — not necessarily for myself but in general for everyone," she said.

Buss said the incident in Cook County should be "a wake-up call" to the state, especially to the Legislators who determine funding for the judicial system.

"We need to secure our court facilities in greater Minnesota as much as we do in the Twin Cities," she said.

Both Hennepin and Ramsey counties have metal detectors at courthouse entrances, and some said security has been tight in those counties.

Terri Pederson, a court operations supervisor, said Ramsey County jurors have had spoons, glass bottles and knitting needles taken from them. "We provide plastic spoons for the jurors and often have to go get the jurors' lunches for them," Pederson said.



About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.