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Courthouse: Is it safe?

The Wadena County Board is investigating a wireless alarm system in response to concern about security in the courthouse.

At its Aug. 15 meeting the board agreed to arrange a demonstration of the Centurion Security System by StopTech, Ltd. The system has a distress button, smoke and motion detectors, sensors for glass breakage, temperature detectors and more, said Scott McKellep, emergency manager.

Commissioner Bill Stearns discovered the Centurion System at a vendor fair at the National Association of Counties Conference. Planning the justice center revealed the need for a security update at the courthouse, he said. The justice center would have included a new jail, law enforcement area and courts. The county abandoned the project after failing to get state bonding money this spring.

Increasing numbers of irate visitors to the courthouse have also sparked interest in the building's safety, McKellep said. A recent incident occurred in County Attorney Kyra Ladd's office.

A man Ladd said she did not know entered her office approximately 15 minutes before the courthouse closed at 4:30 p.m. Ladd described the man as a "fairly desperate person" who was angry with his employer over a civil matter.

"He was upset about a lot of things," she said.

Ladd told the man his concern required a consultation with a private attorney, and she could not help him. The upset man kept pulling items from his bag, she said.

"I didn't know what was coming out of the bag," Ladd said.

The man remained in Ladd's office until shortly after 5 p.m. before leaving, she said.

Later, Ladd brought her concerns to McKellep, she said, to ask what measures could be taken to ensure a similar incident does not occur again.

Ladd is not alone in her encounter with a verbally aggressive person, according to McKellep.

"It's more and more you're getting irate people," McKellep said about the courthouse. "It puts fear into the employee, because you just don't know what's going to happen."

Judge Sally Robertson has also expressed concern over the building's safety. Several years ago she said a drug addict had to be restrained by eight deputies when he began throwing over tables after she told him he would have to post bail.

"He was like King Kong in the courtroom," she said.

The court had advanced warning that he might cause difficulties and was able to prepare for him.

The bailiff in the court room does an excellent job, she said, but additional security needs to be added. She is also still hopeful that the proposed justice center is not indefinitely postponed. Robertson understands the county ran into problems with state bonding money, she said.

"It's a hard issue when you have a poor county," Robertson said.

The county will likely encounter state security standards in the future, Robertson said. They should begin planning and budgeting for at least the minimum standards even without state funding.

"The court house was built in the 1960s," she said. "It's a different era."

McKellep said the Centurion looks like a good start at improving security in the courthouse.

The county plans on having a representative from StopTech give a demonstration of the system at the courthouse, Stearns said. The estimated cost of the system is $6,000.

"If it works, it seems like a reasonable expenditure," he said.

The Centurion is a wireless system that would relay a voice message to dispatch. The Centurion Web site includes a sample message of several beeps followed by "disturbance in Judge Ryan's courtroom." The system can also contact pagers, e-mail and telephones.

Lane Waldahl, chairman of the board, pointed out that the system is only as good as how close the responding officers are.

Wadena is not unique in Minnesota with its security situation, McKellep said. He is hopeful that Wadena will be able to get a metal detector in the future. The biggest cost related to a metal detector is staffing. Equipment can be purchased once, he said, but a staff member has to be paid.

Having a metal detector is definitely a need, Robertson said. Increased security in the courthouse is not only for the people who work there, but for those who visit.

The safety of the Wadena County Jail located next to the courthouse is not in question, according to Tom Speed, jail administrator. The jail is at its maximum operating capacity. The work load has not affected security in the jail, he said.

"Our standards are high here," Speed said. "We have policies and procedure that we follow. Whether we're at 14 or 22 [prisoners], the security is going to be the same."