Twin Cities prosecutors taking steps to improve courthouse security

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2012 - 8:00 PM

Prosecutors act to improve security since December's courthouse shooting.

Anoka County is spending $50,000 to install bulletproof glass in two offices where prosecutors and other courthouse employees work, and Ramsey County now has armed deputies guarding two similar offices.

In Washington, D.C., Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced a bill this month that would give courts access to security training and allow states to use existing grant money to improve security.

The actions come as renewed emphasis is placed on protecting prosecutors and others in the judicial system, an issue that gained prominence after a December courthouse shooting in northern Minnesota.

Nearly all the Twin Cities metro counties were considering stronger security measures months before the shooting, in which the Cook County attorney and a witness were wounded.

But the episode has reinforced and sped up the debate, said longtime Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom.

"Given the nature of the work, it's better to be safe than sorry," said John Choi, the Ramsey County attorney. "You always have a risk."

Take the scenario an assistant Anoka County attorney was facing after she handled a guilty plea in a gross misdemeanor stalking case in December.

A few days after the hearing, Douglas Kytonen threatened to place an explosive device under the woman's vehicle, according to criminal charges. He also said she was on his "bucket list" and that he had a 9-millimeter hollow-point bullet with her name on it, the charges said. He was recently arrested in Arizona.

New precautions

While most metro courthouses have metal detectors and security screening for people going to a courtroom, the floors that house county prosecutors and other court employees are often only protected by a key-card entrance. Anoka County's prosecutors are on two floors, with one of the offices secured by key card.

That will change as a key-card entrance is constructed in one office and bulletproof glass installed for the receptionists in both offices. Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo asked for a security assessment shortly after he was elected a year ago. He is using nearly $15,000 of his own office's budget to help pay for the upgrades.

As the county's population grew and more people were coming through the courts, the number of threats increased, he said. At a simple condemnation hearing years ago, somebody threatened to fill his car with cement "with me in it," he said.

"I quickly shouted him down," said Palumbo, who took the threat a little less seriously than others he has received. "You just hope people are able to show restraint during these times of stress."

Security for prosecutors in Ramsey County is a little trickier than other metro counties because they work in two buildings in downtown St. Paul, not in the courthouse. A private security guard checks people coming into the main entrance of each building, using a metal-detecting wand. A key card is required to get into the offices.

In each case, a sheriff's deputy is posted outside the main door into the office reception area or at a desk behind the receptionist, said Choi. The offices are a mix of people working criminal cases, family court issues, child support and civil commitment. Choi had the support of the county board and other officials, including Sheriff Matt Bostrom.

'Security is always an issue'

Top officials from six of the seven metro counties expressed a desire to improve security, but acknowledged tighter budgets can be an impediment.

Washington County's new courthouse was completed two years ago. The county attorney's office recently started a comprehensive review for a potential variety of safety changes, including bulletproof glass in reception areas and more secure computer systems, said Steve Povolny, the first assistant county attorney.

Last month, he listened to powerful testimony at a Capitol hearing by Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell, who struggled to his office after being wounded in the December courthouse shooting in Grand Marais, Minn. Once inside, he realized the door's lock was broken.

"We take employee safety very seriously," said Povolny. "Until something big happens, people aren't ready to do much."

Backstrom and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said they were comfortable with the level of security in their courthouses, but would prefer to see improvements in buildings and satellite offices where prosecutors and other court workers are housed.

Freeman expressed concern about security at the Family Justice Center and Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Minneapolis. They only have private security in the main lobby and have access to floors through skyways.

Bill Ward, Hennepin County's chief public defender, said he receives at least three threatening telephone calls a week and knows of at least one attorney who was punched in the face and severely injured in court. The county's public defenders are housed on four floors with key-card protection, but anybody can walk into their office reception area. The clients of public defenders are often frustrated and show it if they feel their case isn't going their way, he said.

"Are you ever able to protect everybody all of the time?" he asked. "Our agency serves the public and you really don't want to make them jump through extra levels of security. Without a doubt, security is always an issue."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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