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Technology, personnel work to keep Beltrami County Judicial Center safe

Beltrami County Sheriff's Office Deputy Casey McCarthy looks at images on the computer of a backpack that was scanned at the Beltrami County Judicial Center, 600 Minnesota Ave. NW. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

In an elevator descending from first floor to the basement of the Beltrami County Judicial Center, a security camera attached to the ceiling records Mike Frees as he prepares to check on the basement tunnels leading from the courthouse to the Beltrami County Jail.

Using different key cards to open various doors, the court security deputy team leader for the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office then made his rounds in the building, from bottom to top, pointing out the hardly noticeable but technologically advanced security features in the courtrooms, as well as the metal detector and surveillance system at the front entrance.

Frees believes the county's courthouse is among the safest in the state.

"The technology and the team of security officials we have working here do a good job," he said. "We are fortunate."

The shooting incident that occurred in the Cook County Courthouse in December caused a flurry of reactions from public officials around the state questioning whether some judicial centers are in need of better security.

For Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver, the incident touched him personally. He said he knows Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell, who was shot Dec. 15 in a Cook County courtroom, along with another individual. Daniel Schlienz was charged with two counts of first-degree attempted murder in the incident. The shooting occurred after a jury convicted him of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Schlienz later died in custody at a hospital.

"You feel for the person and family when they're going through something like that," Faver said of Scannell, who was discharged from the hospital Dec. 20.

Faver said the incident made him appreciate the security measures the county commissioners and sheriff have put in place to keep the county's judicial building protected.

At a recent Beltrami County Board meeting, Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp reassured county commissioners the courthouse and administration building are safe and secure.

The judicial center, at 600 Minnesota Avenue NW, was constructed with safety in mind, Hodapp said.

The building has only one public entrance where all visitors must walk through a metal detector after walking through the front door.

At least one Sheriff's Office deputy is in place at the front door security station at all times while the building is open.

Every floor of the courthouse has jail cells in which prisoners are held before appearing in court.

Firearms, unless carried by a licensed peace officer on active duty, knives, cutting tools, chemical sprays, explosives, ammunition, flammable liquid, cell phones, cameras, laptops and audio recorders are not allowed inside. Yet, law enforcement officials still confiscate items from people such as knives, drug paraphernalia and mace. Even a lipstick container made to conceal a small knife was caught by officers.

Many of these items wind up in evidence, Hodapp said at the County Board meeting.

Even if items are not found on people, he said, the simple act of walking through a metal detector prevents people thinking about committing a crime in the courthouse from entering.

"What it does is create a safe environment," Hodapp said an earlier interview. "We don't allow anyone into the building who is armed. That means people can't get in there and shoot someone because they don't have a gun."

Hodapp said when it comes to security, Beltrami County is in good shape.

"I think right now we're quite a ways ahead of other areas in the state," he added.

Last year, Hodapp said the county restructured its courthouse security personnel and created a court security deputy position. Currently, the Sheriff's Office staffs one full-time and one part-time deputy, three part-time bailiffs and two casual bailiffs in the judicial center.

Bailiffs provide security inside the courtroom and also are in charge of prisoner movement inside the courthouse, Hodapp said.

"The design of the courthouse had security factored into the design," Hodapp said. "It accommodates the safety features we have."

Commissioner Jim Lucachick called the judicial center "well ahead of other similar facilities throughout the state."

"The level of security is very good there," he added.

In Clearwater County, Sheriff Mike Erickson said he feels the courthouse, located on the third floor of the county building in Bagley, is safe.

No serious incidents have occurred inside the courthouse since the county installed a metal detector one year ago on the third floor, he said.

The sheriff's office, which is located in the same building as the courthouse, also helps keep the building secure, Erickson added.

Security officials have discussed in the past the need to add better security at the front door of the building. However, he said, this would require all visitors and county employees, from foresters to 4-H extension employees, be scanned daily.

These measures are costly, he said, noting the county would have to provide the resources and manpower to screen every person every day.

"It's kind of a Catch-22," Erickson said. "We certainly want our court employees to be safe, which is our biggest concern, but we don't want to restrict visitors from coming to the county building. We want it to be an open place where people can come do their business and not have to be stripped down to a metal detector."

Lack of resources was one of the reasons Cook County officials cited in explaining the lack of a metal detector in their courthouse, Minnesota Public Radio reports. The typical walk-through metal detector costs between $4,000 and $7,000.

In Cass County, Sheriff Tom Burch said the security of Cass County's judicial buildings is complex, because the county has older facilities, some with newer additions.

While Burch said the Sheriff's Office has been doing what it can to make sure buildings are safe and secure, he admitted some of the older facilities could use security updates.

"When these buildings were built 100 years ago, there weren't the security issues we have now," he said. "Times have changed."

Burch said a metal detector is located in the area where the courtrooms are located. Officers are assigned to the courthouse, but their numbers fluctuate depending on how high profile a case is.

The county is currently in the process of replacing older security equipment in the interior and on the exterior of the courthouse with newer technology, he added.

"Updated technology will give us the ability to know who is coming and going," he said. "I want people to feel safe and secure when they come into the courthouse. We're taking steps to enhance our security."