by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County will continue asking sheriff’s deputies and jail staff to work overtime to guard the Winona County District Courthouse, while county officials search for a long-term solution. Sheriff Ron Ganrude presented his proposed solution — hiring two full-time deputies to guard the courthouse — last Thursday, and in a 3-2 vote, the County Board declined to fund it, opting instead to form a committee to research less expensive alternatives. In an email to county officials, Winona County District Court Judge Mary Leahy threatened to shut down her courtroom if the county does not provide adequate security.
Ganrude and the County Board have been debating courthouse security all year long, with a narrow majority of the board questioning the need for additional security, rejecting Ganrude’s proposals to task licensed deputies with guarding the courthouse, and dismissing Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman’s opinion that the county’s longstanding security solution — employing armed private guards at the courthouse — is illegal. Under state statute, sheriffs are responsible for providing security at local courthouses, but county boards are responsible for the tax dollars that fund sheriffs’ departments. At the end of November, the private security firm the county had hired for years quit, cancelling its contract with the county and pulling its guards out of the courthouse. Premier Security CEO Dan Walker pointed to Sonneman’s opinion and a lack of communication from the county as the reason for its decision. “There’s no positive that could have come out of this,” he said. For the last month, armed patrol deputies and unarmed jail transport staff have filled in, taking on extra shifts to cover the courthouse.
On Thursday, Ganrude proposed hiring two new deputies to guard the courthouse at a cost of $170,000. The county had been paying Premier Security around $85,000 a year for two private guards. The County Board had previously agreed to give Ganrude a total of $115,000 for courthouse security in 2019 — an increase over past years, but not enough for the two, full-time deputies Ganrude wanted. He asked the board for another $55,000 to fund the two deputy positions.
Why didn’t the sheriff’s department look for other private security firms to replace Premier Security? County Board member Greg Olson asked Ganrude. Employing private guards tends to be cheaper than licensed deputies because they are not unionized and often have less intensive training requirements. “Is Premier the only player in the private business?” Olson asked.
Ganrude indicated he was aware of one other firm in the Twin Cities. “I did not reach out to them because they’re so far away,” he stated.
There are a few security firms in Minnesota that provide security for government buildings. Most of them are based in the Twin Cities area.
More importantly, Ganrude explained, he recommended hiring licensed deputies because of Sonneman’s legal opinion and his professional opinion that the courthouse should be guarded be licensed deputies, not private guards. Sonneman wrote that only prosecutors and sworn peace officers — such as sheriff’s deputies — may be legally armed inside the courthouse. In a survey of fellow sheriffs across Minnesota, Ganrude found that nearly all of the respondents provide licensed deputies to guard their local courthouses. “We need to provide adequate security,” he told the County Board.
“Ron, I respect your position on this; I’m just asking for a little change in mentality,” Olson returned. Instead of asking for funding to provide the same security other counties do, Olson asked, “Can’t we be a leader in this and come up with something that nobody has done before rather than just following suit with what others do — something that serves the purpose, that protects the courthouse, but is innovative?”
“I’m on the same page as commissioner Olson,” County Board member Steve Jacob said. “I think what we should maybe do is set up a committee that is going to maybe come up with a solution.” Jacob said of the cost of hiring new deputies: “It won’t take very many years and it’s millions of taxpayer dollars.” He added of employing private guards, “What we’ve been doing has not been dysfunctional.”
“What we’ve been doing has been pointed out as illegal, so I don’t think we can consider that combination of private security and police officers,” County Board member Marie Kovecsi argued. Yes, it will cost money to hire deputies, she stated, but so do all of the services the county provides to the public.
In a November 28 email to sheriff’s department and court administration officials that was later shared with the County Board, Judge Leahy wrote, “I plan on shutting down court when I am without security. I plan on sharing that information with the press.” Leahy was not immediately available for comment for this story.
If Judge Leahy does not hold court, it will delay court cases, drive up the jail population, and that increased jail population will cost Winona County money, Kovecsi pointed out. “It seems like a simple solution to fund this,” Kovecsi stated.
“We have very emotional hearings at the courthouse,” Judge Nancy Buytendorp told the County Board. “We deal with people’s money. We deal with their children. We deal with their freedom, their security.” She recalled one instance when a respondent came running at her during a hearing. Out of nowhere the man leaped up and came barreling toward her, she said. Luckily, Buytendorp stated, a retired police officer was in the courtroom and pinned the assailant against a wall. “I’m not a fighter,” the judge said. “I can’t do that.”
Buytendorp’s tale did not sway the County Board. Earlier this fall, Olson argued that County Board meetings might be more dangerous than court hearings, but he was not asking for more security. On Thursday, Olson, Jacob, and commissioner Marcia Ward voted to delay any decision and form a committee to study alternative options for courthouse security. Kovecsi and commissioner Jim Pomeroy dissented.
A committee of courthouse and sheriff’s department staff already meet to discuss security issues, but the County Board recommended a different makeup for the new committee, to create new, cost-saving ideas. “The intent of the committee is to find some new blood that’s going to think outside the existing box,” Jacob stated. Law enforcement needs to be on the new committee, county administrator Ken Fritz said. Administrative staff could make financial recommendations, but, he said, “Without having law enforcement on it, we don’t have the expertise [in security.]” The County Board directed Fritz to come up with a list of recommended members for the committee. The County Board expects to consider the recommendation and officially approve the committee at its meeting next week.