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Government Center shooting brought security changes
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Attorney Richard Hendrickson beleives metal detectors could have detered the woman who shot him. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
A year ago a woman opened fire on the 17th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis. The shooting outside a courtroom killed one person and wounded another. It also began a debate that culminated in a decision to install metal detectors and take other security measures.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Richard Hendrickson still has a bullet in his neck.

You would never know from his lilting humor and embracing style that one of his vocal chords remains paralyzed, causing some speaking and breathing problems. You could not read in his eyes that a year ago Susan Berkovitz fired an antique pistol at him from inches away, painfully ripping through his flesh but somehow avoiding an untold number of other potential catastrophes.

As he sits in his Osseo office, he reflects on the decision to represent Shelly Joseph-Kordell in what appeared to be a typical contested conservatorship.

"I had no idea that there'd be a person at the other end that would be called Susan Berkovitz," Hendrickson said recently.

Hendrickson said he's angry that Berkovitz was allowed to "ambush" him and his client outside a courtroom where the three had come for a hearing related to a family estate dispute. His client's worries prompted him to arrange security ahead of time, which he said was not nearly adequate.

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Image Geri Joseph

"Security is a term of art in Hennepin County," Hendrickson said. "I thought everybody had guns. I thought all of the officers had guns."

The unarmed escort assigned to his client sought his own safety when the shooting started. After the shooting, Hendrickson diplomatically avoided taking sides in the debate over whether to install metal detectors in the Government Center. Now he believes weapons screening could have prevented the tragedy.

"It's the biggest single government building in the county and the biggest county in Minnesota," Hendrickson said. "People deserve to feel secure. I now have come around to the conclusion that metal detectors would have been a deterrent."

Last month the county board approved a $1.5 million plan to install metal detectors. The vote came following a plea by Joseph-Kordell's mother Geri Joseph. She said Berkovitz skillfully exploited Hennepin's security weaknesses.

"I'm convinced that if they had been in place and if Susan had known that there were security systems there--weapons detectors--she may not have tried to get into the building in the first place," Joseph said. "As it was she didn't do that over in Ramsey County where she knew there were these detectors."

Berkovitz is Joseph's cousin. She says the family had recognized Berkovitz had potential mental problems early on but she never resorted to violence. She said gathering places should be prepared for people like Berkovitz.

"They're not going to tell people you're 100% safe in this building," she said. "There's no way they can do that. But it does give some reassurance, I think."

On an afternoon recently, sun filters through a giant American flag draped at one end of the glassed-in Government Center plaza. On one side of a fountain, rows of elevators carry people to 24 stories of rooms assigned to district court. Another row of elevators on the other side serves a nearly identical tower of offices mainly for the social service workers, planners, assessors, election officials and the myriad other county functions. In January, officials expect to install metal detectors in the plaza that was clearly not designed to accommodate them.

Hennepin County Sheriff Pat McGowan assembled a team of experts after the shooting to recommend security changes. Those recommendations remain confidential, but he said he approves of the direction decision makers are taking.

"The weapon screening was a large part of our panel's recommendation and we are in total concert with the County Board's decision," McGowan said.

The sheriff's office is not responsible for all of the security in the building. McGowan said, however, the focus on security in the last year has made the it safer and the metal detectors can only help.

Still, many people remain concerned the move is an exaggerated response from which the county can never back away. County Commissioner Mike Opat unsuccessfully argued against the decision. He believes the one shooting since the towers were built in 1974 does not make it an unsafe place.

"It's always been a safe building," Opat said. "We have hundreds of thousand of people who come through this building. Thousands come here every day to go to work. We've had some significant incidents here over the 30 year life of the building. But it's a very safe place to do business. And we are spending more than we ever have on security."

A practice run of weapons screening earlier this month produced lines of more than 40 people during the busiest times. Staffers say that should diminish as people become more accustomed to the process.

Susan Berkovitz is serving a life sentence in prison. She continues to file complaints against Richard Hendrickson, the attorney who survived the shooting. None of the complaints has been sustained.

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