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Sen. Al Franken, left, and Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell greeted each other as they arrived at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis for a discussion on Wednesday about courthouse safety with law enforcement representatives.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

April 4, 2012: Wounded Cook Co. prosecutor discusses courthouse security

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2012 - 10:40 PM

As he approached the elevators at the Hennepin County Government Center, Tim Scannell dropped his car keys in a plastic tray, walked through the metal detector, retrieved the keys and dropped them in his pocket.

Much like thousands of others who passed through security screening Wednesday, Scannell went largely unnoticed.

But 3 1/2 months after he was shot and nearly killed in a Grand Marais courthouse by a man he had just successfully prosecuted, the Cook County attorney remains the face of Minnesota's ongoing debate over courthouse security.

Scannell was the authority at a roundtable discussion Wednesday hosted by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, where law enforcement and courts officials said while that Franken's new bill -- which would shift existing security resources to state courts -- wouldn't guarantee public safety, at least it would provide a start.

"This is not isolated. It's on the rise and happens all the time. Obviously, the stakes are incredibly high," Scannell told the assembled sheriffs, judges, court administrators and county commissioners.

"Training to be aware of behaviors has obviously been helpful, but if we could screen for a weapon, that would have made things very different in Cook County," he said.

Franken, a Democrat, touted his Local Courthouse Safety Act, which has bipartisan support and would allow local courts to use excess federal security equipment such as metal detectors, wands and baggage screening machines.

It also would give states access to Department of Homeland Security grants and security training.

Officials pointed out that there are other security challenges in a state where more than 60 percent of county courts are housed in historic structures not built to accommodate modern security technology and where court traffic varies widely among judicial districts.

Grand Marais, where Scannell was shot, typically is a quiet community on the North Shore of Lake Superior and not known for violence.

In the wake of Scannell's shooting, the door to the county attorney's office is kept locked, but the courthouse has not installed metal detectors.

"The legislation raises some questions," Franken said after the meeting. "Does this provide enough resources to make every courtroom secure? How does the state decide to access this grant money? What are our priorities?"

Using common sense

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said that although screening should eliminate deadly force situations, there aren't enough deputies to oversee security screening and staff courtrooms. "One-time grant money is great for screening equipment," he said. "It can't be used for staffing issues."

Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison described the debate as "incredibly complex."

For instance, she said, installing security screening at the county's suburban courthouses could force the closing of one, which would in turn decrease "access to justice" for some.

Chief Hennepin County Public Defender William Ward said frustrations can boil over in a system that people feel is often unfair. It could be remedied if everyone slowed down, took more time with cases and listened to the people involved, he said.

Marna Anderson, executive director of WATCH, a court monitoring organization, echoed Ward's concerns. Good communication, she said, can lessen the likelihood of dangerous situations.

"So, defusing by using common sense?" Franken asked.

"Good customer service," Anderson replied.

Franken said he expected that his legislation will pass soon.

Scannell, who was wounded in the chest and leg in the December shooting, returned to work nearly a month ago. For the most part, he said, he's fine.

"It depends on the day," he said. "It gets easier as we go, but certain things will happen where I'll be feeling a little differently on a certain day and it will be hard."

Daniel Schlienz, 42, who shot Scannell and trial witness Gregory Thompson after he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct, died in the St. Louis County jail 12 days later of a bacterial infection. Thompson was wounded in the groin and leg.

"At first I didn't feel badly at all," Scannell said of the fact that Schlienz wouldn't be prosecuted for the shooting. "As we go along, I think it might have been helpful for the public to process the issue if he had survived and we had been able to go through that justice process."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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