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Published February 20, 2012, 10:46 AM

Minnesota courthouse shooting prompts upgrades

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A courthouse shooting in northern Minnesota that left two men injured has prompted other courthouses in the state to beef up their security.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A courthouse shooting in northern Minnesota that left two men injured has prompted other courthouses in the state to beef up their security.

Anoka County is spending $50,000 to install bulletproof glass in offices where prosecutors and others work. Ramsey County now has armed deputies guarding offices.

The actions reflect a growing emphasis on keeping prosecutors and others in the judicial system safe, an issue that gained prominence after a shooting at the Cook County courthouse in December. In several cases, the safety upgrades were already in the works but sped up following the December shootings, according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune report (http://bit.ly/yyXUgT ).

"Given the nature of the work, it's better to be safe than sorry," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

An assistant attorney in Anoka understands just how risky her job can be. As she handled a guilty plea in a stalking case in December, the defendant threatened to place an explosive device under her car. The man, who was recently arrested in Arizona, also told the woman he had a 9-millimeter hollow-point bullet with her name on it, according to criminal charges.

Most metro courthouses have metal detectors and security screening for people going into a courtroom. However, it's not uncommon for the floors that house county prosecutors and other court employees to be protected only by a card-key entrance.

So some courtrooms are taking extra precautions. For example, Anoka County is installing bulletproof glass for receptionists and adding another key-card entrance, at a cost of $15,000.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said as the county's population grew and more people came through the courts, the number of threats increased. He recalled a hearing in which someone threatened to fill his car with cement "with me in it," he said.

"I quickly shouted him down," said Palumbo, who didn't take the threat too seriously. "You just hope people are able to show restraint during these times of stress."

In Washington County, where the new courthouse is only two years old, the county attorney's office is already considering safety upgrades that could include bulletproof glass in reception areas.

"We take employee safety very seriously," said Steve Povolny, the first assistant county attorney. "Until something big happens, people aren't ready to do much."

One impetus was the Cook County shooting two months ago, in which a man is accused of shooting the county attorney and a witness minutes after the man was convicted in a sex case. Both victims were hospitalized for five days.

Bill Ward, Hennepin County's chief public defender, understands his job isn't risk-free. He said he receives at least three threatening phone calls a week and knows of at least one attorney who was punched in the face and severely injured in court.

The clients of public defenders can become frustrated — and express their displeasure physically — if they feel their case isn't going their way, he said.

The county's public defenders are on four floors with key-card protection, but the office reception area is open. That setup can help with customer service, even though it could be a safety threat, he noted.

"Are you ever able to protect everybody all of the time?" he asked. "Our agency serves the public and you really don't want to make them jump through extra levels of security.

"Without a doubt, security is always an issue."

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