Dakota County judges are calling the lack of security at two of the county's courthouses "potentially lethal" and asking commissioners to add screening and security staff at the facilities.
There are three courthouses across the county. Only one, in Hastings, has security staff screening people as they enter.
Sheriff Tim Leslie and county staffers asked commissioners last week to work with judges to improve security at the other buildings in Apple Valley and West St. Paul.
Violence is a serious threat in courts, Judge Kathryn Messerich wrote in an impassioned letter to the County Board, asking it to set up the infrastructure to screen for weapons. People often enter a courtroom during one of the most emotional and volatile points in their lives, she said. It is the setting for child custody, domestic violence and drug abuse discussions.
"The news is replete with examples of people who were either seriously injured or killed while working at or doing business in a courthouse. Not only court staff and judges are at risk, but every citizen who conducts business at a court facility," Messerich wrote on behalf of the county's judges.
Incidents elsewhere have court officials worried, Leslie said. He said he wants to err on the side of caution and urged commissioners to use the $400,000 they budgeted for security improvements this year.
Over the next few months, judges and a couple of commissioners will discuss who should oversee screening services, where the screening infrastructure should be located in the buildings and whether to consolidate court facilities by moving West St. Paul operations to Apple Valley.
That consolidation could save the county a lot of money, staff said.
Some residents and local officials near the West St. Paul facility oppose that idea, Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said. They would have to drive across the county to handle traffic cases.
"Those are not a particularly high security risk," she said.
Commissioners and judges could look into moving higher-risk cases to Apple Valley and keeping others, like traffic cases, in West St. Paul, County Administrator Brandt Richardson said.
"There's wildly varying perspectives here, but we've got to work something out," Richardson said. He expects it will take two to three months for judges and commissioners to reach an agreement on how to proceed with security.
County officials have been discussing the improvements for several years.
"We're trying to do something reasoned, and in everyone's interest," Richardson said.
Messerich's letter warned that critical situations can happen quickly.
"No one has been injured — yet," she wrote.