A plan to install weapons screening at three suburban courthouses in Hennepin County is drawing criticism from some suburban law enforcement officials and from some county commissioners.
The plan would close one suburban courthouse and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on temporary security measures at the others.
The three courthouses targeted by the proposal are located near three suburban malls: Brookdale, Ridgedale and Southdale. County officials say it will cost more than $600,000 to add screening equipment and personnel at these courthouses right away in the interim, while the county studies how to make the measures permanent.
However, they say it would cost nearly $1 million to make permanent changes to the Southdale courthouse. Officials recommend closing it and transferring the caseloads to the remaining suburban facilities or to the government center downtown.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison said security is important, but closing the facility will make it harder for some people to use the system.
"To me that's the wrestling point," Callison said. "Can we add enough, more security at a reasonable cost to make this something that we should do?"
Callison and other board members discussed the proposal at a budget meeting Thursday.
Edina City Manager Scott Neal told commissioners that closing the Southdale court would impose a hardship on city residents who need access to the court system.
"We believe that the access to justice, the justice system, the court system by our residents in southern Hennepin County is compromised pretty significantly by this proposal," Neal said. "We also feel it has some operational impacts on our police department and other police departments in the area that have yet to be studied in any depth."
Neal said the increased travel to other courthouses would add extra time and expense for both residents and police officers who have to make court appearances. He asked commissioners to take the time to consult with cities like his before going ahead with the proposal.
The push for the security upgrades was prompted in part by concerns raised earlier this year by a Hennepin County judge who refused to hear cases at the suburban courthouses. Since then, Judge Lloyd Zimmerman has heard cases only in the government center downtown — which has weapons screening.
Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson said she's worked for 21 years prosecuting cases at the Southdale courthouse. She doesn't know what all the fuss is about.
"I handled some of the most high-profile, probably dangerous cases at Southdale," Johnson said. "I have never felt threatened I don't see a need for urgency here."
Suburban courtrooms do not handle felony crimes like murder and rape. County officials say the cases mostly involve misdemeanors such as DWI.
But the courts also handle misdemeanor domestic assault cases. And Sheriff Rich Stanek, as well as advocates for domestic violence victims, have expressed concern that tense situations could turn deadly with the introduction of lethal weapons.
However, Commissioner Mike Opat said there will always be risks that someone may become violent at a county facility. He wondered if it makes sense to put them all behind a security perimeter. For instance, he said a lot of people use the violations bureau at the government center downtown everyday.
"It's unsecured and people are there to resolve traffic issues and some people are under a considerable amount of stress," Opat said. "It's not been considered a candidate for going behind a secure perimeter. And I think, it's a court proceeding, it may not involve a judge but I think we should at least explore it."
The proposal also involves moving the county's conciliation court out of City Hall, which doesn't have a weapons screening checkpoint, into the juvenile justice building, which does.
The county board could vote on the proposal next week.