State Funding Means Security Upgrades for Minnesota Courthouses

The new security measures include high-tech equipment meant to address a recent rise in courthouse violent crime nationwide.

by Tom Olsen, Duluth News Tribune / July 6, 2017
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(TNS) -- Six courthouses in mostly rural counties of Northeastern Minnesota will see security upgrades thanks to a statewide funding program.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch last week announced that 57 counties were recipients of grants from the $1 million Safe and Secure Courthouse Initiative, which was authorized by the state Legislature last year to improve courthouse security across the state.

The initiative was launched in response to a reported increase in violent incidents inside courthouses across the country — including a double-shooting inside the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais in 2011.

“Tragically, we know firsthand that courthouse violence is a very real threat and communities like Cook County are not immune to these incidents,” Sheriff Pat Eliasen said in a statement. “Courthouses can be emotional, volatile places — places where people are often experiencing the worst days of their lives.”

Eliasen announced Friday that his courthouse received $17,500 for unspecified improvements. Other area recipients included Aitkin, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and Pine counties.

Beau Berentson, a spokesman for the Judicial Branch, said he was unable to provide details on the amounts and purposes of the grants awarded to specific counties “in order to protect the security of these county facilities.”

However, he said the grants were awarded to help individual counties complete security assessments, provide training to courthouse officials and staff, install bullet-resistant glass at public service counters, replace aging security equipment, install screening stations at courthouse entrances, and implement features such as door locks, cameras, key card readers and duress alarms.

The grants ranged from $514 to nearly $68,000, Berentson said, with most falling between $5,000 and $25,000. Each county is required to provide matching funds for its grant.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, who chaired the advisory committee, said the process marks the first time Minnesota has taken a statewide approach to courthouse security.

“This is an important step forward for our justice system, and one that will serve to better protect the thousands of Minnesotans who enter their local courthouses every day,” she said in a statement. “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.”

The Center for Judicial and Executive Security, a national group that tracks courthouse incidents, counted 19 violent acts across the country in 2005. That number had risen to 90 by 2011.

That same year, Daniel Schlienz, a defendant who had just been convicted of criminal sexual conduct, entered the Cook County Courthouse and shot prosecutor Tim Scannell and a trial witness, Gary Thompson. That case prompted calls for additional security measures and discussions at the Legislature and within the Judicial Branch.

The 15-member advisory committee awarding the grants included Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken, who was present during the 2011 shooting and helped wrestle the gun from the shooter.

“It is crucial that these facilities are well-protected, and that citizens feel they can access their local courthouse safely and securely,” Hicken said. “In addition, thousands of public employees work in courthouses every day to deliver essential government services and administer our system of justice in the state. As their employer, state and county governments have an obligation to ensure their safety.”

Also on the panel were St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, 6th Judicial District operations manager Mark Hoyne and Grand Rapids public defender Gayle Lovejoy.

©2017 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.