Courtroom Violence on the Rise

A Minn. courthouse shooting and a judge's decision to refuse cases in unsafe buildings sheds light on the increasingly unsafe conditions of many courtrooms around the country.
by | January 19, 2012 AT 6:00 PM

Seconds after being convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, Daniel Schlienz allegedly opened fire last month in the Cook County, Minn., Courthouse and injured four people, including a county attorney, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. After being shot in the leg and the stomach, County Attorney Tim Scannell crawled ten feet to the top of a stairwell where he cried for help, said Schlienz's attorney, John Lillie, to the paper .

Lillie claimed that he didn't know that his client had a gun; the courthouse doesn't have metal detectors.

Less than three weeks later, District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman refused to hear cases at three suburban courtrooms in Hennepin County, Minn., because they lack metal detectors and he's tired of "not knowing whether I will be carried out in a body bag that day," he told the Star-Tribune in a seperate story.

Both incidences beg the question of just how safe courtrooms are -- for the public and for judicial staff.

In recent years, the number of violent incidents in courthouses have been on the rise. In 2005, there were 15 violent incidents in U.S. courthouses. Six years later, there were already 28 by the time summer hit, according to a Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES) report. Data is only available up until July 13, 2011.

More than half of violent courtroom acts, CJES Director Steven Swensen says, are committed against courtroom staff, including judges, lawyers and police officers.

Safety is especially a concern in domestic-violence courts and probate courts, which handle fights over money and mental-health cases, according to Timm Fautsko, a court-security expert for the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). He attributes the rise in violence to the economic downturn.

"It's people over a period of time who have lost their civility," he told Governing. "It's economic stress. It's the stress of everyday society."

According to NCSC, walk-through metal detectors should be part of every courthouses' basic security plan. But many courthouses -- especially those in rural areas -- don't have them, according to Fautsko. He says it's usually because of the cost. Metal detectors can range from $2,200 to $8,600, according to a NCSC report.

In addition to metal detectors, NCSC also recommends courthouses have a single public entrance, a separate entrance for elected officials, enough space for opposing parties to wait separately, and no areas where people can hide.

At the request of the courts, NCSC will conduct court assessments of individual jurisdictions and offer recommendations for improving security. Fautsko just finished assessing courthouses in Alaska and Hawaii and will soon be headed to Hennepin County, Minn. The county requested the assessment before the Dec. 15 shooting and before Zimmerman gave court administrators an ultimatum, according to Fautsko.

Since Zimmerman refused to work in certain courtrooms, another judge volunteered to take on some of his cases in Brookdale, Chief Judge James T. Swenson told Governing. Zimmerman is now only hearing cases in the Hennepin County Government Center, which has had metal detectors since 2005 following a 2003 shooting.

As for Daniel Schlienz, he was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder, fourth-degree assault, possessing a gun in a courthouse, obstructing arrest and being a felon in possesion of a firearm, his attorney John Lillie III told Governing. However, he died in a hospital on Dec. 27, 2011, after complaining of flu-like symptoms. The exact cause of death has not yet been determined, but authorities said that foul play was not suspected.

Scannell, the county attorney who Schlienz shot, was reportedly stable after the incident and expected to recover.