County employees are asking for tightened security at the Hubbard County Government Center.
A new checkpoint station is nearly completed in the entryway.
Hubbard County Court Administrator Camille Bessler said the security committee sought county board input about staffing the checkpoint and possibly revising the county’s weapons policy.
“We would still like to move forward with staffing the checkpoint. We want to talk about what options we’d have and get some feedback,” Bessler said at the county board’s Aug. 13 work session.
In 2017, Hubbard County was one of 57 Minnesota counties that received state grants to improve courthouse safety. The county was awarded $14,998, which covered the purchase of an X-ray machine to screen purses and bags, Bessler said.
In December 2018, the county board approved a draft budget of $54,704 for construction of a security checkpoint station.
County Assessor Ginger Woodrum said, “My staff is very concerned with security, as well as myself. My office gets threatened periodically,” sometimes once a month. She urged the board to staff the station full-time and during evening meetings.
“In my opinion, it’s not if an incident is going to happen, it’s when,” Woodrum said.
A year ago, Bessler said, there was an unstable person with a shotgun in the parking lot and threatening her over the phone. “Those types of events are what are really spurring the conversation,” she said.
Arming county employees
“The first checkpoint security question is regarding firearms, whether or not we want the current policy to be modified for employees,” Bessler said. “Right now, the policy says that employees may not carry a firearm into the courthouse, even if they have the permit to carry.”
By Minnesota law and the U.S. Constitution, County Attorney Jonathan Frieden explained the county may not restrict permit holders from carrying their pistols into the government center. Firearms, on the other hand, are not allowed within the courtroom.
Bessler explained, “They are restricted from carrying into the courts’ area, under a different order issued by the chief judge of the district.”
It’s a felony to carry a handgun without a permit under the dangerous weapons statute, Frieden said, so no county ordinance is necessary.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Scott Parks added that anyone carrying a weapon must declare it before coming into the government center. Metal detectors are also in place at the checkpoint.
“We have spent a lot of time vetting this issue and wanting to insure that if the public have certain rights we really fully understand the impact of what our local policy would be,” Bessler said.
Frieden said the county has the authority to restrict county employees from carrying a firearm while working. Department heads could also create their own department policies, he added.
“What would be the rational of restricting the employees if the public is not?” asked county commissioner David De La Hunt.
Bessler said the committee has discussed that at length. She noted that she is a permit holder and enjoys shooting on a range. In an active shooter situation, though, she asked, “Am I going to be comfortable, especially with reactions of co-workers and also a state of panic? We talked about doing additional training for our employees who would like to carry.”
Parks said the main issue is the potential increased liability “if an employee, God forbid, carries out the act or attempts to mediate the situation and makes a mistake.”
Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes said he was not opposed to allowing county employees to carry a weapon “so long as they’re trained and keep it out of sight. There’s no expectation that they have to step up and protect everybody else because not everybody’s able to do that. But, if something happened, they at least have the ability to defend themselves.”
Hubbard County Coordinator Eric Nerness said, when law enforcement arrives to deal with the situation, “I don’t want to be standing there with a gun in my hand.”
Financing security staff positions
County Recorder Nicole Lueth said the 10-year, long-term plan is to secure the entire government center. “It’s just hard to come up with the funds,” she said.
Aukes estimated staffing the checkpoint would cost about $187,000 annually for one full-time deputy and two part-time deputies.
County commissioner Char Christenson said one reason the board was hesitant to fund staffing last year “was because we don’t have everybody under one building. If we secure this building, then there’s the public works building and social services building.”
Aukes said he included one full-time staff position in his proposed 2020 budget. It had been in his 2019 budget as well, but that was cut by the board.
De La Hunt said, “Ultimately, everybody would like to see it staffed 100 percent of the time the courthouse is open. Assessing the risk, that seems to be the most practical thing. The question is how fast can we get there.”
While it would be nice to secure the other two county buildings, De La Hunt said “the reality is they have a lot less public access.”
If the checkpoint will not be staffed, De La Hunt said he’d be more inclined to allow employees to carry weapons.
Since the county has a lot of staff in the field, Parks recommended that if county employees are allowed to carry handguns, department heads would have the ability to be more restrictive than county policy.
Christenson said when she took her permit-to-carry training, she learned about the impact on law enforcement. “The employees would need to understand what they’re going to go through emotionally and physically if they point a gun and shoot somebody,” she said.
Bessler said the committee has proposed additional training for employees “for whatever you may experience.”
Parks said that any county policy must be thoroughly considered and enforceable. He added, “We’ve had these discussions for almost two years now. I would hate to accelerate the discussions to the next level only after something happens.”
County commissioner Tom Krueger asked how the county sheriff watches for any “unstable” permit holders.
“If we don’t know about an issue in their history and they have a permit to carry, they’re allowed to come in,” Aukes said.