Ramsey County to review security

Tom Ford

The Ramsey County Courthouse has been under heightened security since terrorists attacked the East Coast in September.

Although more sheriff’s deputies guard the entrances and X-ray screening devices have been installed, some county officials are skeptical about continuing the security upgrades.

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman’s administration planned to present its recommendations for courthouse security to the City Council on Wednesday but was delayed. City and county officials continue to debate the measures’ merits.

Tony Bennett, Ramsey County commissioner, said the county board believes threats have diminished since the Sept. 11 attacks.

He said no other courthouses in the state have employed such extensive measures, and security at other county buildings has not been enhanced or addressed.

He also said employees in other buildings deserve protection equal to the security at the
courthouse.

“Can we treat one employee differently than another?” he asked.

Ramsey County Board Chairman Rafael Ortega said the board wants to eliminate the metal detectors at the entrances and the searching of visitors.

He said the increased security was temporary, and because no further threats have materialized, open access to the building should be restored.

But Ramsey County Chief Judge Lawrence Cohen said courthouse security had been “an escalating problem even before Sept. 11.

“We track many people in the building who are charged with serious offenses,” he said. “We’re the place where heated disputes between people occur.”

Cohen said for many years judges across the country have called for increased security measures. But only until recently has there been an “overwhelming desire to take action,” he said.

He also said the priority is training officers and courthouse staff how to respond to threats and disturbances.

In light of the Sept. 11 attacks, Cohen said people are realizing open access to courts needs to be scaled back to ensure tighter
measures.

“I can’t think of a better place to provide security than in a building that houses courts,” he said.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said although the sheriff’s office stationed more deputies at other county buildings since the attacks, the primary focus is protecting the courts.

“Historically that’s where the most violence occurs,” he said. “Courtrooms are full of emotion.”

Fletcher said the sheriff’s office will request funding to continue security at its current levels, which would cost approximately $600,000 per year.

In the past five years, he said, he has advocated increased courtroom security, and the atmosphere following the Sept. 11 attacks only enhances safety concerns.

Funding for these upgrades would amount to approximately $1 per year for all St. Paul residents, Fletcher said. This is an investment people would be willing to make, he said.

The temporary security measures – which will be in place until an agreement is reached on a new plan – will cost approximately $300,000 until the end of the year. The amount is almost exclusively due to staffing expenses.

Ortega said the county would not pick up all those expenses and would determine with the city how the costs would be shared.

Currently, approximately one-third of the building is used by the city, while the rest is occupied by county offices and courtrooms.

While security costs for the building have typically been shared along those lines, Ortega said the breakdown for upcoming costs has yet to be decided.

He also said the building’s occupants will meet again in January and probably finalize a compromise solution soon after.

Tom Ford covers St. Paul and welcomes comments at [email protected]