Winona County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Charles Rolbiecki was one of many deputies who took extra shifts this winter to help guard the courthouse. After months of debate, the County Board agreed on a long-term plan for courthouse security.
by CHRIS ROGERS
After a 15-month-long saga, the Winona County Board agreed last week to a plan for providing security at the Winona County District Courthouse. The new plan is a compromise between law enforcement officials who wanted more guards and County Board members who wanted to keep costs down.The county will hire one full-time deputy for courthouse security and a pool of part-timers. “I think it’ll work out,” Sheriff Ron Ganrude said of the final plan.
Court can be a tense place. People may lose custody of their children or get sentenced to months in jail. “It’s not just criminal cases. It’s more likely divorce cases and order-for-protection cases where people are at their worst and angry,” Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said. If a defendant loses their temper, someone needs to be there to keep the peace.
For years, the county contracted with a Rochester-based security firm to provide two armed guards to watch over the courthouse. However, Sheriff Ron Ganrude felt like it was not enough. With up to three courtrooms in session at one time, there were not always enough guards for each courtroom, much less one to staff a metal detector at the front door, and Ganrude said it was a legal grey area for civilian security guards to take defendants into custody. He wanted to hire an additional deputy — a licensed peace officer with the power of arrest — to augment the private guards. But because Ganrude doubted the County Board would fund a full-time position for that duty, he proposed splitting a new deputy’s time between courthouse security and another role the county needed to fill: its emergency management coordinator.
Emergency management had previously been a part-time duty, but first responders from across the county urged the County Board to dedicate a full-time employee to emergency preparedness. So, last January, the County Board rejected Ganrude’s proposal and asked him to come back with another plan for courthouse security.
Ganrude did, asking the County Board to fund a new, full-time deputy to augment the private guards at a total cost of $158,000. That proposal kicked off 12 months of debate, with County Board members Greg Olson, Marcia Ward, and Steve Jacob questioning the need for more security and resisting calls for major staffing and budget increases. “The money has to come from somewhere, and I represent the people who have to pay for this,” Jacob said. “There’s probably a greater security threat of sitting behind a School Board seat or a City Council seat or a County Board seat than there is in a courtroom,” Olson stated, adding, “I don’t hear anyone begging for security at our meetings.” The board did increase Ganrude’s security budget from $85,000 to $115,000, but Ganrude said that was not enough.
Then Sonneman advised the County Board that only licensed peace officers — not private guards — may legally carry firearms inside the courthouse, and the Rochester security firm quit, saying that, for the company, no good could have come out of continuing its contract with Winona County. When the private guards left, the sheriff’s office had to scramble and pay patrol deputies and jail staff un-budgeted overtime to guard the courthouse. Jacob, Olson, and Ward rejected a proposal from Ganrude to hire three full-time deputies to guard the courthouse at a cost of $255,000 and turned down a subsequent proposal to hire two full-time deputies at a cost of $170,000. Instead, the County Board asked a committee consisting of Jacob, Ganrude, Sonneman, county administrators, and a judge to hash out a less expensive solution. In the meantime, the county continued paying deputies overtime to cover the courthouse for the last four months.
Last Tuesday, the committee returned with its recommendation: hire a full-time deputy, hire a pool of part-time licensed peace officers who would collectively work 30 hours a week, and use unarmed jail staff 10 hours a week to round out the courthouse security needs. The plan will ensure there is always a licensed peace officer at the courthouse with a gun and the power of arrest, and according to county staff, it will provide enough guards to cover all courtrooms while court is in session. The jail staff would fill in occasionally to operate the metal detector. The new plan is estimated to cost $145,000.
“I’d just like to say thank you to the entire committee for thinking outside the box,” Jacob said before the County Board voted unanimously to approve the new plan. “I think it’s a great solution, and it’s a compromise for the benefit of the taxpayer from what the original request was,” he added.
“As Steve Jacob put it, it is a good compromise, I think,” Ganrude stated. “I’m happy with the way things are moving, and I feel a lot better with the security at the courthouse,” he said. Ganrude explained he is glad the new licensed officers would have clear authority to arrest defendants and added, “I like the fact that these are my employees, not contracted employees, and I know what kind of training they have.”
It may take a couple months before the county is able to fill the new positions. The plan is contingent on the county finding enough licensed peace officers who want to work part-time — either recently retired officers whose licenses are still active or officers for other local law enforcement agencies who want to pick up some extra hours — to fill shifts 30 hours a week. “I’m optimistic we’ll get some people … I’m just hoping there will be enough people,” Ganrude said.