Pete Johnson was climbing the stairs to Washington County’s second-floor courtrooms in Stillwater when he heard a fight break out below him. Seconds later a man came running at full speed, yelling that he wouldn’t let anyone take him to a mental hospital.
“I was mostly just stopping to see if anything happened,” said Johnson, a 29-year-old assistant county attorney. “He kind of tore away from the deputies and started sprinting across the waiting area. He came running right by me. I jumped out and put a knee into his legs. I like to call it a takedown.”
Incidents like this one, in January, happen without warning in the courthouse, no doubt the most combustible crossroads of humanity found anywhere in Washington County. The courthouse is a melting pot of the accused, the convicted and the violated; it’s a stew of judges, juries, attorneys, victims and their families. It’s a place where people in conflict mingle in close quarters. Tension runs high, and anyone can explode without warning — especially when being taken into custody.
“That’s when people freak out, when somebody tells you, ‘You’re not going home today.’ That’s pretty serious,” said Johnson, one of the newer prosecutors in County Attorney Pete Orput’s office.
Law enforcement in the courthouse falls to the Sheriff’s Office, which maintains a contingent of deputies and bailiffs who watch for trouble ranging from weapons smuggling and swearing at judges to anxiety disorders and heart attacks.
Courthouses these days aren’t necessarily more violent, but the potential for violence is greater than ever, said Sgt. Tim Harris, who’s in charge of security training for the court unit. In recent years, he said, more and more people enter the courthouse showing disrespect for the institution, requiring deputies to enforce rules of decorum.
“Now we have people showing up in flip flops, like they’re going to the beach,” said Cpl. Chanin Klontz.
The man fleeing deputies when Johnson intervened was Eric Paul Woodford, of North St. Paul, who subsequently was charged with three felony counts of assault, including two on peace officers and correctional employees. According to the complaint, he punched a Ramsey County deputy trying to handcuff him and threw a chair at Klontz, who broke his shoulder when he jumped out of the way. Woodford then sprinted down a long concourse toward exit doors.
After the young attorney tripped him, Woodford sailed at least 15 feet across the tile and landed in a heap. As officers converged from both directions, Johnson is seen in a security video putting his hands in his pockets and walking away.
“Right when I did it, I wasn’t sure if I should,” said Johnson, who weighs 165 pounds, plays hockey in a men’s league and softball in the summer. “I’m not a deputy, I’m not an officer. It happened so quick that I didn’t remember exactly what I did.”
That melee, which occurred outside a courtroom, was the most recent big disruption resulting in injuries. Deputies also work out of public view, in restricted areas where they funnel inmates from the nearby county jail and two big state prisons through stark white corridors to holding cells as they await court appearances.
Harris was hurt last year when a shackled jail inmate attacked him.
“The judicial process is adversarial in itself,” Harris said, describing “highly charged emotional events” where people sometimes are confronted with life-altering decisions. Deputies are trained to watch for nervous behavior such as persistent pacing, a flushed face, a tapping foot. They know which defendants have shown “assaultive behavior” in the past, plan ahead for sentencings and hearings where trouble could occur, and meet with judges to discuss levels of security.
Deputies and bailiffs assigned to the courthouse receive special training to deal with problem behaviors in confined settings. If they need reinforcements they’re only a radio call away from the next-door Law Enforcement Center.
“There’s a lot of unpredictability. We don’t know what will occur,” said Sheriff Bill Hutton. “If something happens and it’s ugly they’ll react first and then we’ll send the cavalry over.”
More than 400 people a day enter the courthouse through the security checkpoint — “a single point of entry” into courts, Hutton said — where deputies get a first look at anyone who might cause trouble.
An “amnesty box” at the door allows visitors to surrender items such as brass knuckles, ammunition, martial arts throwing stars, corkscrews, knives, lighters, utensils — even handcuff keys. Padlocks are banned because they could be used to lock courtroom doors or swung in clothing as weapons. Drug paraphernalia can lead to arrests.
Commander Jerry Cusick and his court staff evaluate security daily, doing everything from sweeping courtrooms for weapons to reviewing court appearances and assigning deputies accordingly. They’ve seen it all, including intoxicated defendants and people under the influence of drugs, Cusick said.
The Sheriff’s Office often must be mindful of impressions of a show of force in court, which means striking a balance between security and individual rights.
“The last thing we want is a mistrial because we had too many officers and intimidated the jury,” Harris said.
But court business isn’t all worrisome — happy occasions include weddings and adoptions, when people leave smiling.
Meanwhile, Johnson took some ribbing from fellow attorneys for his heroics in the courthouse.
“I only had to take about two steps so I didn’t get too winded,” he said.
In instances like that, Hutton said, it’s interesting “to see who rises” to the challenge.