Courthouse shooting prompts security reviews around Minn.by Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
The Morrison County government center in Little Falls reopened Wednesday, one day after a fatal shooting at the building. Gordon Wheeler Sr. was shot by three law enforcement officers after he brandished a gun during a county board meeting. The incident has kicked off a statewide discussion on safety inside Minnesota's public buildings, as people who work in the government center try to make sense of what happened.
Collegeville, Minn. — Employees at the Morrison County government have returned to work. Although many of them did so in a haze, says Paul Fronsak, the Morrison County Veterans service officer.
"I guess you have to say did this really happen yesterday? Was it just a bad dream we had?"
Fronsak was down the hall from his office, which is right next to the county board room, when the hostage situation began. He helped evacuate others from the building.
The shooting has spurred discussion of increasing security at the Morrison County government center. But Fronsak is afraid that could go too far.
"This is the public's house. We're just employed there. We're public servants, we're here to help the public and if they don't even feel welcome in their own homes, I think we got a real problem."
Metal detectors are probably not an option, Fronsak says. They're already in use in the county's court room, but would cost too much to install and operate across the county building complex.
Reevaluating county building security and its cost is something a lot of people across the state are thinking about in light of Tuesday's shooting.
The Lac Qui Parle County courthouse in Madison is typical of rural public spaces. There are many entrances, and little security. That doesn't seem to bother employees or visitors to the courthouse, county auditor Jake Sieg says.
"Do we ever really feel threatened? I haven't felt that yet. I'm confident our law enforcement would be able to take care of that for us,"
The Morrison County incident has people in his building talking about security, Sieg admits. That's just fine with him, he welcomes the conversation. While metal detectors are not an affordable option for his county, he's thinking about other less expensive options.
"That does not have to be high tech. It could be low tech as installing one of these cordless door bells that are just battery operated...and the bell rings in another office and if that bell goes off that office knows that something is going on."
A violent encounter a few years ago at the Hennepin County government center in Minneapolis resulted in increased security at that facility, including metal detectors.
In 2003, a woman opened fire on the 17th floor of the center, killing one person and injuring another. After the shooting, county officials decided to install more cameras, hire more security officers and install weapons screening systems.
The new security measures make people feel safer, according to Judy Hollander, director of Hennepin County property services.
"I think that at first we had many skeptics, but I think I do really get a lot of positive feedback that people do feel safer." Hollander is not aware of any guns that have been found by the metal detectors in the three years they've been in operation. The security system has flushed out several knives, she says.
Only employees at the center, or people visiting courtrooms or county board meetings are required to be screened. People using the county's other services are not screened for weapons.
County security needs are different in each location, says Jim Mulder, the executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. Metal detectors may be the best way to secure buildings in some parts of the state, Mulder says.
"In other counties a different kind of response might be more appropriate. It might be a secure reception area, it might be video cameras, it might be other kinds of things that could alert people to the fact that there is danger coming."
While cost is a major barrier to increasing security, so is building design, Mulder says. Older buildings were just not built with security in mind.
"Most of our buildings were built with the idea of having more public access and making them inviting for the public to come in."
Even though incidents like the Morrison County shooting are extremely rare, it shows counties face a renewed challenge of balancing the safety of a public space, with the right to public access, Mulder says.
- All Things Considered, 06/25/2008, 5:50 p.m.