A divided Congress should agree on making our courthouses safe
In December, a defendant who had just been convicted of a crime retrieved a gun from his car and walked into the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais. He shot and wounded the prosecuting attorney and a witness; a bailiff was injured during the encounter. The courthouse did not have a metal detector, and the gunman was not screened.
After the shooting, a Minnesota judge expressed his concerns to colleagues, saying, "I'm no longer willing to risk my life, the life of court staff, (and) the life of the public who have no choice about going to court." He said he was worried about being "carried out in a body bag."
Sadly, courthouse violence is becoming increasingly common and is a growing concern among people who spend time in courtrooms.
Sue Lantto, an advocate for victims of domestic violence, often visits a local courthouse in suburban Minneapolis to help her clients obtain protective orders. Last month she revealed that, "Most of us who work at the courthouse have had moments when we were frightened," because cases sometimes "become volatile."
Patricia Buss handles family court matters in Dakota County, Minn. She says she "personally think(s) of the risks every time (she) walk(s) into the courthouses."
And John Baker, an attorney in Maplewood, Minn., and a retired Marine, concurs: "I am not saying that we need to create fortresses of our courthouses, but basic security screening and training can go a long way. That is not being done."
What happened in Grand Marais was not an isolated incident. In September, a defendant opened fire in the Crawford County Courthouse in Arkansas, shooting a judge's secretary. Two days after that, there was a shooting in the Adams County Superior Court in Indiana. And just last week, a man facing charges opened fire in the lobby of a local courthouse in upstate New York.
The Center for Judicial and Executive Security in St. Paul tracks "court-targeted acts of violence" across the nation and estimates there were 23 incidents at local courthouses in 2010 and 2011. That's nearly one per month.
The local courthouse is a workplace for many people, including secretaries, custodians and clerks who clock in and clock out every day. It's also where justice is administered. It's where we report for jury duty and fight traffic tickets.
But, as Sue, Patricia and John can attest, local courthouses also can be dangerous. Stakes are high. Tempers flare. Victims confront their assailants, defendants confront their accusers and prosecutors argue with defense lawyers.
Among their many duties, sheriffs typically are responsible for courthouse security. They need our support to make sure every person in every courthouse is safe. And we cannot wait for the next courthouse shooting before we give it to them. That's why, last week, I introduced the bipartisan Local Courthouse Safety Act, legislation that would do three simple, common-sense things.
First, it would cut through bureaucratic red tape to give local courts direct access to security equipment that federal agencies are no longer using. It would give the lower courts direct access to the federal government's excess metal detectors, wands and baggage-screening machines.
Second, it would give states the flexibility they need to make investments in courthouse security. It would clarify that states may use their federal grants to improve safety at local courthouses. The bill would not require any new spending; it simply says states can use existing federal resources for courthouse security upgrades, if they choose.
Finally, the legislation would help provide training and technical assistance to local law enforcement officers, teaching them how to anticipate and survive violent encounters.
This is a bipartisan issue, and this should be legislation we can pass, even in this divided Congress. I'm proud to introduce this legislation with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, my Republican colleague from Arkansas and a champion for law enforcement personnel in his state and across the country.
The shooting in Grand Marais had a profound impact on people here in the Northland and on me, and we were lucky that no one was killed. But what happened in Cook County has sadly become an all-too-common occurrence, and it's clear that we need a solid solution to put an end to violence in our courtrooms.
Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.