Despite its relatively low crime rate, Carver County recently approved a $511,000 weapons-screening system and additional protection for its courthouse in Chaska.
In doing so, it became the last of the seven Twin Cities metro-area counties to install courthouse weapons screening. Even for somewhat rural counties such as Carver, it's a priority, officials say.
"We haven't experienced a significant problem or event here, but we're looking at being proactive to try to avoid a potential security problem," said Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze of the new system, which is expected to be operating by March. "It's one of those unfortunate things that we feel is necessary in our changing society."
Late last year, nearby Scott County opened a similar system. And Hennepin County added interim screening stations at its three suburban court locations in April 2012.
The added security is necessary, Hemze said, because of the potential for violence against judges, prosecutors, jury members and others in courtrooms.
In recent years, numerous incidents have occurred in courtrooms around the nation, including Minnesota. Two years ago, Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell and three others were wounded in a shooting at the county courthouse in Grand Marais. The shooter had just been convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Additional security and a metal detector have since been installed.
Carver's screening station will be in the main lobby of the Justice Center between the Sheriff's Office and the courts entrance. It will be similar to an airport system, with a walk-through metal detector and metal rollers to move bags and purses through an X-ray machine, Hemze said. The project also will install more cameras to monitor all courthouse halls and parking lots, he said.
The county has previously implemented several layers of security measures, he said, including improved exterior lighting and electronic card readers on doors.
Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton said he opposed a weapons screening system for his county's courthouse in Shakopee for many years but changed his mind in 2012 for a combination of reasons.
"As we saw more drug-related activity and some of it more organized, and the increase in mobility and propensity or violence among a lot of offenders within our criminal justice system, you reach a point where it becomes prudent," he said.
Shelton said one factor was evidence that people travel more to commit crimes. Mostly suburban to rural counties such as Scott are no longer far enough from large cities to feel immune from more frequent and serious crimes, he said.
Other incidents also caused Shelton to rethink his opposition to "point-of-entry screening," he said. A few years ago, a fist fight broke out between two gangs in the courthouse, followed by two drive-by shootings in Shakopee related to that dispute. Another incident involved a man associated with a Mexican drug cartel who was found filming the jurors, prosecutor and judge in a county courtroom during a drug-related case. He was arrested.
No single problem or event might justify a new security system, Shelton said, but "if the totality of incidents over a few years indicates a rising threat level, you've got to make the appropriate response."
The screening system at the Shakopee courthouse is working well, he said. "We've had very few complaints," he said. "Most people understand, particularly in today's world."
Interim to permanent
Hennepin County installed walk-through metal detectors at its Ridgedale, Brookdale and Southdale courtrooms in April 2012. County commissioners approved the interim screening after the Grand Marais shooting and after a Hennepin County District Court judge refused to hear any more cases in suburban courtrooms unless visitors were checked. The county has had weapons screening at its downtown Minneapolis Government Center since 2005.
Nancy Peters, communications specialist for Minnesota's Fourth Judicial District, said Hennepin County now plans to construct permanent security screening at its Ridgedale and Brookdale centers. Decisions about permanent changes at the Southdale location are on hold, she said, because the entire building is being evaluated for changes.
State court officials say they don't know how many of Minnesota's 87 counties have weapons-screening systems in their courthouses. "All of those buildings are owned by the counties, not the courts," said Kyle Christopherson, communications specialist in the state court information office. "The local sheriff is in charge of security for each of those facilities, and they determine at the local level what they need."
'As much as you can afford'
Scott County's Shelton said weapons screening creates "more of a secure envelope" in a building, but it can't prevent problems outside. Screening systems should probably should not be installed as a "knee-jerk reaction" to a single incident, he said.
"You need to constantly assess the level of security and when you should make adjustments," he said. "You don't want to waste resources by being overly protective, but you also don't want to be foolish about real threats and not provide adequate protection."
The balancing act of providing both access and safety in public buildings has played out in Wright County, where county offices and courts are in the same building. County Coordinator Lee Kelly said the court portion of the building in Buffalo had metal detectors for several years, but in 2008 the equipment was moved to the front and back entrances so everyone who entered the building was screened. Last summer, county commissioners decided to pull the detectors from the main entrances and return them to just the courts area, he said.
Hemze said that for Carver County, the time has come to elevate security to the next level for the courts building. "It's one of those tough issues where you can never seemingly do enough and you're never going to be 100 percent secure," he said, "but you definitely want to do as much as you can afford."