Some officials push for more courtroom security

Hennepin County Government Center
People wait to go through the security screening checkpoint at the Hennepin County Government Center. This is the entrance for courtroom visitors to access elevators that lead to courtrooms. The government center contains another identical station that leads to another part of the building.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Officials and law enforcement in Hennepin country met Thursday to push for tighter security measures at three suburban courtrooms.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek renewed his call for weapons screening checkpoints after a judge announced he would no longer hear cases at courthouses that lack safety precautions such as metal detectors.

The judge and some observers worry that a courtroom conflict could erupt into serious violence, like the recent shooting in a northern Minnesota courthouse that injured a prosecutor and a witness.

County court officials have requested a safety assessment from an independent consulting group.

A serpentine line queues outside one of two security checkpoints at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. Before people can reach the courtrooms on the floors above them, they must have their bags and shoes x-rayed. They walk one-by-one through a magnetometer, more commonly known as a metal detector.

The security checkpoints were built after a 2003 shooting inside the building left one person dead and another wounded. But the county didn't install similar facilities in all eight buildings where district court proceedings occur. One of those buildings without weapons screening is Minneapolis City Hall, which is run by a building commission of county and city officials.

There are also no weapons checkpoints at three suburban courthouses: Brooklyn Center, Minnetonka and Edina. The cases that come through the suburban courtrooms do not involve felony crimes like murder or rape. The cases mostly involve misdemeanors, such as DWI. But the courts also handle misdemeanor domestic assault cases, Stanek says.

Hennepin County Government Center
This is the entrance for courtroom visitors to access elevators that lead to courtrooms at the Hennepin County Government Center.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"With that comes a greater propensity for violence in the courtroom," Stanek said. "When you have a domestic assault case, you've already got someone who either did injure someone or threatened the use of force to injure someone."

Stanek declined to give specifics, but says deputies at suburban courthouses frequently arrest people with outstanding warrants. He says deputies occasionally discover weapons on the people they arrest.

An official with the sheriff's department said since weapons screening began at the government center and the other downtown court locations in 2004, deputies and security guards have confiscated hundreds of sharp objects including knives. And they've found nine handguns.

Stanek said the best policy is to station screeners at the door of every courthouse, to find and confiscate weapons before deputies or others are confronted with them.

"We don't want to have to wait to respond to a shooting; or when somebody takes out a gun and encounter that measure — or whatever that weapon might be. Or the assault.," Stanek said. "That doesn't make any sense to us."

Last year, Stanek said, the Brooklyn Center courthouse handled around 1,000 domestic assault cases. That Brookdale courthouse was also singled out as potentially dangerous by Judge Lloyd Zimmerman, when he refused to oversee cases there or at the other suburban courtrooms.

Shortly thereafter, Zimmerman told several media outlets that he was reassigned in retaliation for his complaints. However, Chief Judge Jim Swenson says no such reassignment had been approved.

Zimmerman was out of town when MPR News called him for comment. He responded with a voice message saying, "I've exhausted myself physically, mentally and emotionally over this thing. And there's a cost for that. I'm only human." He did not comment on his previous statements.

Zimmerman's concerns about safety in suburban courts are shared by an advocacy group called WATCH, which released a report last spring detailing disparities between suburban and city courtrooms.

Suburban courtrooms are busy and crowded, said WATCH Executive Director Marna Anderson. The group's volunteer court observers noticed that defendants would often wait hours before their cases were heard.

"And so they start to get agitated, which was a concern for our monitors at times," Anderson said "The concern that victims might be there to make a statement in court or the victim might be there because she wants to see what's going to happen to her case. This is particularly for domestic violence cases, obviously."

Anderson suggests the county create separate waiting areas for suspected domestic abusers and their alleged victims, and add weapons screenings.

County court officials requested a security assessment before Zimmerman voiced his concerns. The four-month long study will be conducted by the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based consulting group.

The state will pay for the $74,000 study, according to Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat. But he says any upgrades to county-owned buildings will be paid for by property taxes.

Opat agrees with people who want safe court buildings, but said, "We have our disagreements from time to time about what constitutes a safe building. And also we have other buildings where we have emotional transactions that are not weapons-screened and where people still want to go to work everyday."

Opat is referring to places such as government center offices where people go to pay for violations. People aren't necessarily in the best of moods when they pay their fines for parking violations, he said.

Metal detectors, x-ray machines and the personnel needed to monitor them don't come cheaply. County officials said the county initially spent $2.5 million on the security stations at the Government Center.

Each year the county spends $1.6 million to operate weapons screening checkpoints in four different buildings.

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