Statehouse Security

Making our capitols safe requires a balance between security measures and easy access.

By Garry Boulard
January 2008

When Scott Renfroe visited the Colorado Capitol before his election as a state senator in 2006, a highpoint was always entering the ornate 1890s building through its grand front doors.

“Looking up high and seeing that gold dome with the flags flying around it was really very exciting,” says Renfroe. “And then to walk up the front steps and go inside without anyone questioning you about why you were there made you feel that the government was accessible to anyone. That’s the way it should be.”

But that kind of open access may soon be over. In early September, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter announced a proposal that would require visitors to enter the building through only the side entrances where X-ray machines, magnetometers and a detail of security officers would be in full use.

Ritter also proposes beefing up the Colorado State Police security detail in the statehouse as well as installing an X-ray machine and magnetometer inside the Legislative Services Building, which is nearby the Capitol.

“The governor’s recommendations are in response to ongoing security concerns,” says Captain Mike Savage, a spokesman for the Colorado State Police. “It’s an ongoing process designed to make the statehouse as safe as possible for both the people who work here as well as the many who visit.”

Security concerns were exacerbated this summer when a 32-year-old man entered the Colorado Capitol and Ritter’s office with a loaded .357-caliber pistol and a knife, declaring: “I am the emperor and I am here to take over state government.” Aaron Snyder was in the process of being escorted by a state trooper out of Ritter’s office when he revealed the handgun beneath his coat and moved toward the officer. Ignoring two warnings to stop, Snyder was shot twice and killed.

In the aftermath of that incident, metal detectors, installed after 9/11 but dismantled within the year because lawmakers and visitors said they inhibited access to the Capitol, were re-installed.

Security vs. Access
Such decisions, says Tony Beard, chief sergeant-at-arms of the California Senate and a recognized authority on statehouse security, represent an ongoing debate among lawmakers across the country. What is the most efficient way to make public buildings safe? When is security, in a nation accustomed to government access, too much?

“It is obviously a delicate balance that each state has to maintain,” says Beard. In his several decades handling security at the California Capitol he has seen everything from bomb threats, medical emergencies, a hostage-taking to a shoot-out in the basement.

“For us,” Beard says, “the debate centers on how to convince lawmakers that equipment like magnetometers is not designed to inhibit or stop people from coming into the building. It is there to enhance the safety of the people who work in and visit the building.”

Yet Beard admits that even in a building where magnetometers and X-ray machines are highly visible, and complemented by a security staff in excess of 60 people, the idea of the totally open-door statehouse remains powerful. “People just want to believe that they can walk into their capitol and talk to a lawmaker or any other official and not have to be stopped at any point and show their identification,” says Beard. “That is a very powerful and honored tradition in our country and one that no one wants to see die.”

And in states where the open town hall is among one of the most cherished principles of the local political culture, the challenge is even greater. “It is almost impossible to talk about enhancing security in our statehouse without people becoming extremely agitated,” says Senator Susan Bartlett of Vermont.

“We have always taken great pride in having all the doors of our capitol open to anyone who wants to visit. It’s an important part of our heritage,” she says.

“So when you talk about maybe confining that access to just one door and having it manned by security, a lot of people here don’t see that as a good thing designed to protect them,” adds Bartlett, “but rather as a bad thing that is taking away one of their rights.”

The Right to Bear Arms
The question of rights also revolves around the issue of bearing arms and whether or not anyone besides security officers should be allowed to bring a weapon into a statehouse. “Other people in other states may not think this is a big deal,” says Indiana Senator Thomas Wyss, who is a member of the Indiana Legislature’s counter-terrorism and security council and has played a vital role devising new security rules for the Indiana Statehouse. “But this is a matter of tremendous importance for us here. We have had judges and lawmakers who for years have been legally licensed to carry their own weapons and have done so in the capitol.”

Although a compromise was eventually reached allowing those legislators and judges to continue to bring their weapons into the Indiana statehouse, which is also the home of the state’s supreme and appellate courts, Wyss says the lesson learned was a good one. “You don’t want to launch any kind of new security program when you know that all it’s going to do is get people angry. You have to be sensitive. In order for any program to really work it has to have the support of the people who are most affected by it.” 

The same principle may apply to the issue of access, thinks Bartlett. “The emphasis has to be on how to make the people coming into the capitol more safe and not on how some new procedure is going to make access more difficult. If people get the idea that you are doing anything that is somehow or other taking away one of their rights, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Little Opposition
So far, organized opposition to enhanced statehouse security from civil liberties advocates has been minimal. “I know that in different states our chapters have had questions, but in no state that I know of have we ever officially come out against any program to make state capitols more secure,” says Liz Rose, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. “The thinking is that these legislatures have really been trying to do a good job balancing questions of access with legitimate security needs.

“There is a feeling that putting up things like metal detectors, for example, does not prevent citizen access or really even make that access significantly more difficult,” Rose says. “Essentially the measures we’ve seen at the statehouse level balance freedom and safety in a way that we have so far been willing to live with.”

Similar balances regarding any number of security issues can also be found if lawmakers, when contemplating statehouse security upgrades, call in as many experts as possible to talk about the advantages and pitfalls of increased security manpower and equipment, according to Kansas Senator Jay Emler.

“This is an area where it pays to get a lot of advice,” says Emler, who serves as the chairman for the Joint Committee on Kansas Security. His committee must review and make recommendations on the safety of the state’s public facilities and buildings, including the Capitol. “We’ve had the experts come in and, in closed session, give us an honest review of what our issues and vulnerabilities are. Our thinking is that the more information we receive from as many different perspectives as possible, the more likely it is that we will do the right thing when we implement all of our new security measures.”

Wisdom of Security Guards
Lawmakers can additionally benefit from the wisdom of those who end up doing the actual policing—security officers and guards. “The perspectives of the security officers cannot be underestimated,” says James Carney, acting president of the United Government Security Officers of America.

“They are the ones who know the most about any given building. They are also the ones who, if treated well by their employers, will stay on the job year after year and will really get to know the people who work in that building,” says Carney.

“The security officers know who the problem people are and who has been thrown out of a building in the past. They know which lawmaker, if he forgets his identification, will become testy by having to get in line and go through a metal detector, and which one won’t,” Carney says. “That is the kind of knowledge that is essential to the effective running of any statehouse security plan.”

Beard in California agrees. “Because of term limits, the security officers can be the only people left in the statehouse who have an active memory of certain security events,” says Beard. “And that’s important because it means that the officer will not only know how to respond in a way that a lawmaker or staff member might not, but that he might also know from past experience who is a security risk and how to best deal with him.”

Security officers in the California Legislature regularly conduct training sessions for lawmakers. “The education process is extremely important,” says Beard. “For example, a new member needs to know if the member they succeeded was the subject of any kind of threats or inappropriate behavior. There is always a chance that the person who made such threats might not have figured out yet that the old member is gone.”

New lawmaker Renfroe said he regarded similar security education sessions in the Colorado Capitol as “extremely helpful, because in essence you learn about things to look for, the difference between a person who is angry and a person who may be on the verge of being a threat.”

“So much of this business is about being proactive,” says Beard. “It’s about looking out for certain signs and empowering the staff. It’s letting staff know that it is perfectly appropriate to report someone, if that someone is behaving in a strange manner.”

In Vermont, being proactive has also meant adding an invisible layer of security to the statehouse in respect of the state’s strongly independent constituents. “We have emergency buzzers in the committee rooms,” says Bartlett. “These are less important when we are in session and there are a lot of people here. But out of session, when you may be all by yourself doing your work in one of these rooms, the buzzers are important if someone comes in who may be acting a little bit on the odd side.”

Security Costs
When contemplating how to make a statehouse more safe, says Beard, lawmakers should also think not only about the layer of security that works for them, but how much each layer costs. “This is an expensive business,” says Beard, “and it is getting more expensive all the time.”

Indiana lawmakers who agreed to close off more than a dozen entrances to the statehouse in favor of two guarded sets of doors also signed off on a $610,000 contract that will provide technicians to staff those doors. California spent an initial $1.2 million on security equipment in 2001 and recently built two pavilions to house it at a cost of $2 million.

“We have between eight and 10 magnetometers that each cost $10,000 and eight X-ray machines that go for anywhere from $45,000 to $50,000,” says Beard. “But keep in mind that in a building with a lot of use—and we have more than a million people a year coming through our statehouse—this kind of equipment wears out after a while and has to be replaced.”

The plan to enhance security in the Colorado statehouse has an estimated cost from the governor’s office of $1.6 million, which includes $735,000 for X-ray machines and magnetometers in the Capitol and $360,000 for the same equipment in the Legislative Services Building. The plan also includes $360,000 for more state troopers throughout the Capitol. But lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee in October scaled back the governor’s funding request to $621,835, saying they preferred to wait until the entire legislature is in session this month to make final decisions about the tougher security measures. The money approved  is enough to install equipment at the public entrances of the Capitol, add quick-card building access equipment at the private entrances and increase the number of security guards and state troopers assigned to the building.         

Carney of the United Government Security Officers of America says lawmakers should also think about the pay scales of security officers. “You can never underestimate morale and how that is tied into security,” he says. “How you treat these security officers and compensate them has a direct bearing on the type of security you are going to get.”

Carney says security officers should be treated well to avoid high turnover. “You can’t expect to have the best quality of security for your buildings when you have high turnover.”

In Indiana, says Wyss, “We decided to approach our security issues on an incremental basis. We looked at our vulnerabilities and options and made a point of trying to get as much support from both the administrative and legislative branches as possible. They are the ones who were going to be most affected by any new security procedures.

“We might as well face it—it’s a different world today and we need to have a different approach to making our buildings safe,” says Wyss.

Garry Boulard, a frequent contributor to State Legislatures, is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M..