Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Protecting courts from 'troubled people in troubled situations'
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A man sets off the metal detector in the Ramsey County Courthouse. His belt buckle was the culprit. (Brandt Williams)
A weapons screening program in the Hennepin County Government Center goes into operation on Monday. The system will contain X-ray machines and metal detectors, much like airport security checkpoints. The security measures are a response to a fatal shooting in the building in 2003. Coincidentally, the new security system starts up on the heels of a series of violent court-related incidents around the nation.

St. Paul, Minn. — Late last month a man shot and killed two people outside an east Texas courthouse before being shot and killed by law enforcement officers. Four days later, a federal court judge returned to her Chicago home to find her husband and mother murdered. It was later discovered that the suspected killer had targeted her. In Atlanta on Friday, a superior court judge was among the three people shot and killed in and around the Fulton County courthouse.

Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke says his life has been threatened before. But he doesn't constantly look over his shoulder.

"Because I think if I were in that situation I'd go find another occupation," says Burke. "But there's no doubt that the examples that have happened in Atlanta and Chicago do illustrate that courts are magnets for troubled people in troubled situations."

Hennepin County's new security measures are being put into place a year and a half after Susan Berkovitz open fire outside a 17th floor courtroom. She shot and killed her cousin Shelly Joseph-Kordell and wounded Richard Hendrickson who was representing Kordell.

Nobody's tried to hijack a plane from the Minneapolis St. Paul airport. But no one would think it would be responsible to take the metal detectors out of the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport because we haven't had terrorists there yet.
- Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke

The shooting occured in the county government center which contains the bulk of the county's courtrooms and administrative offices. Hennepin County officials say the building's design presented a challenge for planning a security scheme.

"This building was clearly not designed with weapons screening in mind. It has about 24 separate entrances," says Judy Hollander, director of property services for Hennepin County.

Hollander's department planned the security system. And security personnel from the property services department will man the xray machines and metal detectors. Hollander says the security stations will be set up around the elevators that lead to the administrative offices and the courtrooms. She says the key is maintaining the building's open atmosphere.

"This building belongs to the public," says Hollander. "It's where a lot of their important government business is done. And so, even though we'll be doing weapons screening, we still want to try to make it as convenient and accessible as we can."

At the Ramsey County Courthouse in St.Paul, metal detectors are already in place. The detector in the courthouse lobby chirps as a man in a black leather jacket walks through. He stands passively with outstretched arms as a security officer runs a wand around his frame. Apparently, a metal belt buckle is the culprit. The whole exchange takes about 30 seconds and the man is on his way.

Ramsey county sheriff's deputy Joe Chidon sits nearby watching everyone who comes through the doors and walks though the metal detectors.

"People are really understanding here," he says. "They understand that there are significant dangers these days and aren't opposed to having just this type of security for them."

Ramsey county installed metal detectors and X-ray machines at its main three main entrances shortly after 9/11. Chidon says he thinks the security checkpoint is a deterrent.

"Most people when they see the metal detectors they know if they are carrying a weapon that it's going to get caught so I think that deters most of it," he says.

Ramsey county officials say since the metal detectors were put in they've confiscated thousands of straight-edge objects which could be used as weapons and they've detected two hand guns.

Hennepin County judge Kevin Burke says in his 20 years on the bench he can't remember the last time someone even used harsh language toward him. However he says he is in favor of screening people for weapons before they get into the courtroom.

"Nobody's tried to hijack a plane from the Minneapolis St. Paul airport," says Burke. "But no one would think it would be responsible to take the metal detectors out of the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport because we haven't had terrorists there yet."

Hennepin county officials say weapons screening has been implemented in other Hennepin County buildings, including the Family Justice Center, the Public Safety Facility and the Juvenile Justice Facility.

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