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Hennepin County shooting prompts new look at security
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Hennepin County Government Center (File photo)
One person is dead, another wounded after a shooting this morning on the 17th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. Officers have a female suspect in custody. The shooting happened outside a room where harrassment cases were being heard. The violence has prompted a renewed call for greater security in the largest Minnesota government building outside of the State Capitol.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Pele Brown from Minneapolis was waiting in the courtroom for her own case to start when she heard a gunshot in the lobbby.

"I knew that was a gunshot," says Brown. "My sister used to be a Minneapolis police officer. I used to go to the gun range. I know that was a gun shot. It was loud."

Brown says others in the courtroom went to the door to see what happened.

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Image Sheriff Pat McGowan

"And then we heard some people screaming out in the back, outside in the hall. We heard the deputies saying, 'Put the gun down,' and 'Call 911, call 911.'"

Brown says that's when deputies came in and said no one would be allowed to leave or enter the room.

Robert Washington is a county employee and was making deliveries one floor above the shooting. He says he ran down 15 flights of stairs after hearing the shots.

"The main thing I was trying to do is trying to get out of here, you know," says Washington. "After I heard those two pops I was like, 'Hey, I'm outta here.' Take the stairway down."

The Hennepin County Government Center is a busy hub in downtown Minneapolis, where thousands of staff members watch over social service cases, elected officials debate policy and district courts tackle some of the state's highest profile cases.

At a news conference, Sheriff Pat McGowan says the shooting outside the courtroom is the center's first.

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Image Guns banned in the building

"The call for assistance to the 17th floor was aired at 10:17 a.m. by a female sheriff's deputy who was in the immediate area. The suspect was taken into custody without incident almost immediately," McGowan says.

The shooting prompts questions about the building's security. Guards are routinely stationed at key places, but other than signs warning of a court order banning guns, there's nothing to keep someone with a weapon out. County Commissioner Mark Stenglein of Minneapolis says the building's security is often a topic of concern.

"It was built 25-plus years ago to be accomodating to the public. And back then the thought of screening this building was the last thought when they built this building," says Stenglein.

The center has numerous entrances that empty into a large public atrium. County Administrator Sandy Vargas says installing metal detectors would be very expensive.

"A few years ago it was in the $6 million to $8 million range for the hard capital costs. And it was probably in the range of $1 million a year to operate weapons screening," says Vargas.

As many as 350 county employees already face layoffs this year, as officials try to fill a projected $100 million budget shortfall. Vargas says added money for security would have to come from somewhere else, such as human services.

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Image County Attorney Amy Klobuchar

Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke has called a meeting with other officials to discuss security. He says this is not a high visibility courtroom.

"This would not have been the kind of courtroom where anybody would have said, 'We know somebody's coming here today, so let's do something special.' So another day, in another venue, we're going to have to re-evaluate those issues," says Burke, "because there will be a whole bunch of people who are going to say, 'Hey, look, you've got to do something.'"

One of those people is Hennepin court clerk Jim Little. He says courts frequently deal with strong emotions.

"They're being dragged into court, they may have done something wrong, they may be completely innocent. They're pissed. Where else are you going to have security?" says Little.

Sheriff McGowan says even heavy security can't ensure absolute safety.

"Can we give a guarantee, always, on everything? You can't -- as much as you wish you could," says McGowan.

A sheriff's office spokeswoman says if the suspect had a permit to carry a handgun, it was not issued in Hennepin County.

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