STILLWATER, Minn. - Washington County Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Harris said Friday that a judge labeled his courthouse here the gold standard of courthouse security.
Visitors to the Washington County Courthouse can enter through only one door and face a security regimen that would make Transportation Security Administration officers at the airport blush.
When the Stillwater courthouse opens for business in the morning and when people return to the building from lunch, they might face as many as six courthouse security officers working two X-ray scanners, two magnetometers (walk-through metal detectors) and hand-held metal detectors.
Unlike Washington County, courthouses around the Northland seemed to have been built more for easy access than security. Typically, no uniformed officers are standing in the way, and no metal detector must be passed through for a citizen to enter a Northeastern Minnesota courthouse.
In the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth, the most obvious involvement of security officers is when they remind people to turn off their cellphones and not chew gum or take food and drink into the courtroom.
The Washington County Courthouse was finished in 2010, and a lot of thought was given to security, Harris said. The Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais was built nearly 100 years earlier in 1911 with a later addition. The St. Louis County courthouses in Duluth, Virginia and Hibbing were built in 1909, 1910 and 1957, respectively.
"From our perspective, we are very blessed with equipment and technology," Harris said. "But it's a fine balance between too much security and too much officer presence may impose intimidation on the court hearings. Our presence is just enough to make sure that we have proper security but we're not going to influence people from coming into court."
Harris, who is in charge of operations for courtroom security, said he has heard criticism from people when they have to take their shoes or belts off and empty their pockets to make sure that they aren't bringing prohibited items into the courthouse.
He said he was quoting a former sheriff when he said: "Security is not a convenience."
Authorities around the Northland on Friday expressed their concerns for the victims of Thursday afternoon's shooting in the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais, but they weren't ready to say that any major changes need to be made in their own courthouse security. They said their goal is to provide public safety without making a trip to the local courthouse onerous.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman and Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said their courtroom security officers decide when to deploy metal detectors at a courtroom door depending on any assessed threat or at the request of the judge.
A metal detector was in use outside one St. Louis County courtroom in Duluth on Friday, where a man was being tried for sexual assault. Presiding Judge John DeSanto made the request.
The Minnesota Sheriff's Association has made courtroom security a hot-button issue in recent months. The association sponsored a courthouse and building security training seminar in Duluth about a month ago. "It was well-attended by law enforcement agencies, court staff and judges from around the state," Litman said. "It has resulted in better communication with the public defenders office, with law enforcement agencies, judges, court staff and the sheriff's offices."
Litman said there are so many entry points into the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth that it would be cost-prohibitive to search everyone who came into the building. "Unless we think you are acting suspiciously, we have no reason to stop and detain you," he said. "And a gunman or woman with ill intentions could still cause a lot of harm and destruction at the search point. I'd like to think our staff would be quick enough to intervene, but depending on what the person was armed with, there could be great harm regardless of what security measures we take."
Security officers in the Duluth courthouse don't carry firearms, but they are equipped with Tasers and chemical spray. They've also been trained in the use of force and defensive tactics. Each courtroom and all county departments in the building are equipped with "panic buttons," which immediately summon a law enforcement response.
Lake said her staff understands that they need to balance public safety with giving the public access to the county offices that are housed in the courthouse, but ultimately the No. 1 priority is public safety.
Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler recently relocated his office from the courthouse to the law enforcement center. The move was made because space became available, but it also has resulted in better security for the county attorneys and staff.
Pertler said that in the past he has had to call the Sheriff's Office to eject angry and upset people from his office when he became concerned about his and his staff's welfare. Now he's in an office in which visitors have to walk by a window watched by sheriff's personnel before getting on an elevator to the county attorney's office next door to the sheriff's office.
"You certainly want to make the courthouse and county offices accessible to the public," Pertler said. "The vast majority of people are law-abiding citizens that are expecting services, and that's what we want to do to make it as convenient and accessible to the public as possible."
Mark Stodghill is a writer for The Duluth News Tribune