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Security at Hennepin County building debated for years
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Hennepin County's Government Center was built in the 1970s, with a goal of open and easy access for the public. As a result, it has some 35 different entrance points which makes security a difficult proposition. (MPR file photo)
At a time when the nation remains sensitive to security concerns, one of the Twin Cities urban courthouses allows essentially unfettered access to its adult courtrooms. Hennepin County is one of the few metro courthouses in the country that has not enhanced security with metal detectors and entrance screening. Officials say securing the building would be a difficult and costly proposition.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Architects designed the Hennepin County Government Center as an open, inviting, convenient center where visitors could move freely between the two 24-story glass towers. One tower houses administrative offices, the other is home to the courthouse. The building has more than 35 entrance points on ground level and through several skyways.

But with that openness comes vulnerability, particularly in the courthouse tower. There, judges and juries settle some of the county's most violent conflicts.

Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke says he understands budget constraints. But he says officials should address the fact that Minneapolis is behind the rest of the nation in courthouse security.

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Image Bans guns

"Almost every other community has found the resources to do this," says Burke. "I don't think realistically that Hennepin County is poorer than Maricopa County, poorer than Cleveland, poorer than Newark. We're not in Appalachia of courthouses."

The Hennepin County Board has debated increased security in the east court tower for years. Chairman Mike Opat says the board has decided that adding metal detectors and other mechanisms to screen visitors for knives and guns isn't cost effective.

"You give up a lot when you start to weapon screen a building like this one. There's a lot, in terms of time and effort and cost and inconvenience, that goes with it," Opat says.

County officials say adding metal detectors and X-ray machines at all the entrances to the government center could cost millions. Opat says the county has adapted to the center's design constraints by moving juvenile court and other potentially volatile courtrooms to areas more friendly to security screening. He says officers screen visitors with wands in high profile trials. And overall, there are more law enforcement officers in the courthouse.

"We don't have a secure perimeter, so we secure the interior as best we can. And we do that with a lot of bodies and a lot of guns," says Opat.

"Extra security officers are great. But they'll never overcome the fact that one person armed with a weapon can completely take control of a room full of law enforcement officers," says Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

Extra security officers are great. But they'll never overcome the fact that one person armed with a weapon can completely take control of a room full of law enforcement officers.
- Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher

In St. Paul, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher says the best strategy is to keep weapons from ever getting into the courthouse.

"A knife to the neck of any citizen in that room would force the deputies to put the individual's safety ahead of some of their other security thoughts," says Fletcher.

Ramsey County beefed up security at its courthouse and city hall not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The cost was $645,000. Now, all visitors must pass through metal detectors while X-ray machines screen all bags.

The Ramsey County Sheriff's office say officers find, on average, about 30 weapons each day. Mack, an officer who wouldn't give his last name, says he worked for 30 years as a prison guard. He says visitors have tried to clear security check points with box cutters, mace, scissors, ammunition and knives.

"Knives of all sizes -- from small ones to large knives -- weapons I call them," says Mack. "I think it's a concern that these weapons are coming through here, and we're literally holding them for people until they leave."

In January, a woman brought a loaded .45-caliber handgun into the Ramsey County courthouse. The initial hand security check missed the weapon, but was detected by X-ray equipment.

Ramsey County Chief Judge Thomas Mott says court security is vital to a fair legal system. He says jurors and others should be concentrating on the evidence in a trial, not worrying about their personal safety.

"Whether it's jurors or a witness, or somebody complaining about a problem, they needed to feel safe when they're here. If you don't have that, you don't have the level of cooperation and the system starts to fall apart," says Mott.

At the Ramsey County Government Center's north entrance, an elderly man approaches the metal detectors and empties his pockets into a little basket. The contents include a small knife.

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