Since 1912, the Cook County Court House in Grand Marais, Minn., has overlooked Lake Superior, its central entrance featuring six Ionic columns that run two stories high. With its idyllic setting and neoclassical design that put it on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s been a commanding but inviting landmark for the state’s northeasternmost county.
Too inviting, it turned out.
In December 2011, Daniel Schlienz was convicted of several criminal sexual conduct charges, walked out to his truck and walked back into the courthouse, heading toward the county attorney’s office.
Schlienz pulled out a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol and shot a witness who was just leaving the office. He then entered the office and shot then-Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell in the chest. Both survived.
In the aftermath, the Cook County Courthouse became a symbol of big-time violence invading small-town America, and it highlighted the perils of local criminal justice systems often ill-prepared to defend themselves.
“The shootings here opened people’s eyes that these kind of violent situations can happen not just in the metro area but in outstate and rural areas; and opened eyes as far as how poorly equipped some of the rural courthouses find themselves for dealing with those situations,” said Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken.
There have been other instances of courthouse security breaches in the state: a bomb threat at the Carver County Courthouse in 2015. A concealed 7-inch knife at the City Hall-Courthouse in St. Paul in 2014. A killing at the Hennepin County Government Center in 2003.
In fact, a 2015 review found that only a third of Minnesota’s courts operate in places that have installed permanent point-of-entry weapons screening systems, and only half of county-based district courts have conducted assessments to identify and correct risky situations.
To address safety concerns, the state of Minnesota last week awarded for the first time $1 million in grants to 57 of the state’s 87 counties to help fund a variety of courthouse security improvements.
Awards ranged from $514 to nearly $68,000 and will go toward such things as conducting professional security assessments, providing training to courthouse officials and staff, installing bullet-resistant glass at public service counters, replacing aging security equipment and installing or upgrading security screening stations at courthouse entrances.
Hennepin County, the state’s most populous, will use its $35,000 grant to strengthen its weapons screening in all its court facilities, including its Family Justice Center and Juvenile Detention Center.
Each county will provide a dollar-for-dollar match for its grant in cash or in-kind services.
“This is truly an access-to-justice issue, and Minnesotans deserve to feel safe when coming to court, accessing government services, or fulfilling their duties as citizens and taxpayers,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said in announcing the grants. Gildea spearheaded the effort to get legislative funding for the initiative, which was designed to level out disparities in local funding for court security.
Hicken won’t reveal how much Cook County’s grant was or what it will fund, saying it would defeat the purpose of security.
But Hicken, who was a member of the task force and advisory board that reviewed the grant requests, said the money isn’t often the issue; awareness is. She said a simple $15 lock would have stopped Schlienz from entering the door of what is now her office.
“When our incident happened we didn’t have a ton of money to throw at it, but we didn’t need it to make some of the incremental changes that could really make a difference,” she said.