A needed boost for courthouse security

Published 8:55 am Thursday, March 24, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

A bomb threat at the Carver County Courthouse in 2015. A concealed 7-inch knife at the City Hall-Courthouse in St. Paul in 2014. A triple shooting at the Cook County Courthouse in 2011. A murder at the Hennepin County Government Center in 2003. Minnesotans have witnessed enough violence or threats of mayhem in and around their courts to favor beefed-up security in places where justice is administered.

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For years at the Legislature, calls for courthouse security improvements largely went unheeded as state government — which bears responsibility for court funding — grappled with budget shortfalls. Some county governments have filled the breach. But a 2015 review found that only a third of Minnesota’s courts operate in places that have installed permanent point-of-entry weapons screening systems, and only half of county-based district courts have conducted assessments to identify and correct risky situations.

This year’s state budget picture is different, and so should be the Legislature’s response. A smart proposal for enhancing court security has come from a task force appointed by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. It has won the backing of Gov. Mark Dayton, and it deserves the Legislature’s support as well.

The proposal calls for a one-time, $20 million appropriation to create a grant program to be administered by a panel of stakeholders and the chief justice’s office. Counties with unmet security needs would apply to the fund for assistance; the panel would make awards based on nationally accepted best-practices criteria.

Wisely, this approach is not a costly, one-size-fits-all prescription dictated in St. Paul. Rather, Gildea told the Star Tribune Editorial Board, she wants to leave control with the counties, while at the same time giving them fresh incentive to assess their security status and correct shortcomings.

“I’m not going to say that there needs to be weapons screening in every courthouse in Minnesota,” Gildea said, noting that courtrooms in some Greater Minnesota courthouses are in use only one day per week. But everywhere courts operate, security risks should be assessed. “Maybe they could use some training. Maybe it’s bullet-resistant glass or an alarm system.” The proposed grant program could help make those things possible.

Gildea aptly described courthouse security as an “access-to-justice issue.” We would add that it’s a trust-in-government issue. Security lapses in local halls of government shake people’s confidence in all of government, not just its judicial branch.

Some legislators are evaluating Dayton’s budget recommendations with an eye toward eliminating those things that are nice but not essential. This recommendation is not one of those things.