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Safety Inside State Capitols Is in the Hands of People With a Very Old Job Title

Today’s sergeants-at-arms forgo armor and are strictly nonpartisan, but much like knights of old, they ensure decorum and security.

By Joe Rassenfoss  |  February 19, 2024

Protesters calling for Israel to end its war against Hamas shut down the California Assembly on Jan. 3 in Sacramento. On that same day, bomb threats were made at numerous state capitols, many of which were evacuated, including in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Maine, Oklahoma, Illinois, Idaho, South Dakota, Alabama, Alaska, Maryland and Arizona.

The California Assembly returned to work the next day (the California Senate did not shut down). The bomb threats were hoaxes, and no one was injured. But the events served as vivid reminders of the central role security plays in public buildings, including state capitols.

These days, much of that security work is done by technology: full-body scanners, security wands and strategically placed cameras. Outside many public buildings are barriers to keep vehicles away and other architectural features that make the structures more resistant to external forces.

But technology can’t do it all—and seven states still don’t use any screening equipment in their capitols—so the human component remains essential. While all state capitols are supported by law enforcement, the first line of defense inside the buildings is the sergeant-at-arms.

If that title sounds antiquated in 2024, there’s good reason. The name dates back almost 1,000 years to King Philip the August of France, who brought serjeants d’Armes, clad in full-body armor, to safeguard him on an 1192 crusade to the Holy Land.

Today’s sergeants-at-arms forgo metal plate armor, prefer anonymity to notoriety and maintain a strict nonpartisan stance in their role monitoring legislators, staff and media to ensure decorum, encourage open communication and support security.

Brad Murfitt Montana
Murfitt

Constant Communication

None of that is to suggest they don’t approach their jobs with zeal—and in the case of Brad Murfitt, military precision. Murfitt comes by that naturally: The Montana native retired to Helena from his post as a U.S. Army command sergeant major after 33 years of service and a background in special forces communications, infantry, armor and military operations. His curiosity brought him to the Montana House gallery to hear the issues being debated; one thing led to another, and he was selected the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms in 2016.

Murfitt says a normal day during the legislative session starts with a 6 a.m. walk through the House chamber, committee rooms, anteroom and public access areas. Then he meets with the chief clerk’s office staff to discuss the day ahead before gathering with his own staff of 14, as well as a member of the Montana Highway Patrol, to lock down the day’s duties, which can include monitoring committee hearings and the daily House session.

The bomb threat received at the Capitol meant Jan. 3 was hardly a normal day, but the constant communication within the building supported by the Montana Highway Patrol helped the response. “That was the first time that (a bomb threat) had happened that I am aware of, but the building was cleared in about five minutes,” Murfitt says. “And then it took about an hour to search the building (with a bomb detection dog) before people could reenter. Our emergency action plan lays out everything people should do in that situation.”

Even though it was a hoax, the threat led to a series of follow-up actions, including a recent meeting of state Capitol stakeholders, to review the response. “An event like this reminds people they all have a responsibility at a time like that,” Murfitt says.

One change that isn’t being contemplated in Montana’s Capitol: adding body scanners for the public to walk through as they enter. And it remains up to Murfitt and his team to control access to the House gallery by observing all visitors entering and requiring those with backpacks and containers with liquids to temporarily surrender the items. “And we always discuss, ‘If you see something, say something,’” he says.

The bomb threat, however, was unusual. Murfitt says the job is more often about monitoring decorum in meetings and supporting the free flow of communication.

“Shortly after I started, I noticed at the Health and Human Services Committee, a number of the members of the public registered to testify were in wheelchairs or had trouble walking,” he recalls. He could see how that made testifying difficult.

So, his team brought in a consultant who used a wheelchair himself and made changes, including putting in a low table for those in wheelchairs. “That makes them more comfortable and helps the flow of the meeting,” Murfitt says.

Practiced in De-Escalation

A fourth-generation Coloradan, Jon Judson brings deep connections to his role as sergeant-at-arms in the state House of Representatives. He worked for the Colorado State Patrol for 35 years, including flying former Govs. Richard Lamm and Roy Romer around the state. Part of his tour with the state patrol included a three-year stint at the Capitol in Denver, which resulted in his selection as sergeant-at-arms in 2010.

Judson cites the importance of communication when discussing the response to pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the gallery above the House chamber on Jan. 9, the opening day of the Legislature. The group had demonstrated outside the Capitol during a special session two months earlier, so the sergeants-at-arms and state patrol had met to discuss how to manage subsequent rallies.

“People can’t come in with bright T-shirts that say things like ‘Vote Yes’ on this issue or that, because that takes away from the nonpartisan nature of the hearing.”

—Stephen Rosenthal, sergeant-at-arms, Colorado House of Representatives

“When they came back, we made sure there were a couple of state troopers on hand to remind them what they could and couldn’t do,” Judson says. The demonstrators defied guidelines on displaying banners and chanting, but Judson wasn’t concerned. “We thought our response to their protest was a success because it only lasted about five minutes before we had it under control,” he says.

Under control—and also without violence, a byproduct of the trend in recent years toward “de-escalation,” a series of techniques to use when dealing with potentially volatile situations within and outside the legislature. (Learn more by watching “De-Escalation Techniques for the Legislature” on the NCSL website.)

“It’s our job to enforce decorum and protocol in meetings,” says Stephen Rosenthal, a seven-year veteran at the Colorado Capitol who just succeeded Judson as chief sergeant-at-arms. “People can’t come in with bright T-shirts that say things like ‘Vote Yes’ on this issue or that, because that takes away from the nonpartisan nature of the hearing. And if someone starts yelling, and we can’t persuade them to stop, then maybe it’s time for us to call the state patrol.”

But de-escalation and better planning have helped avoid trooper involvement, Rosenthal says.

“Last year, a group of students from Denver East High School came down to the Capitol to protest about gun violence. And that first time, there was a lot of yelling and frustration on the part of the students,” he says. “Leadership asked, ‘What can we do to ease their frustration the next time they come?’ So they enlisted a couple of legislators to talk with the students about the issue. And the next time they came down, we found a committee room where they could go and discuss the issue with the legislators.”

Dedicated to Decorum

Outsiders aren’t the only ones whose decorum needs monitoring. Every year brings new legislators and committee chairs who may need to learn the legislative process. The sergeants-at-arms in Colorado and Montana conduct training classes on proper decorum, as well as safety procedures. In Montana, there’s also CPR and AED training for the sergeants-at-arms staff. The duties extend even further. In Colorado, they must ensure only those with legislative passes park on streets outside the Capitol. In Montana, Murfitt works with the House supply clerk to oversee purchases of supplies for the staff and manages the page program.

Murfitt also reviews all “hate mail” legislators receive, including letters, texts and emails. “I share it with the Montana Highway Patrol and they investigate and share with the fusion center,” he says, referring to one of the state-owned and -operated centers across the country that gather, analyze and share threat-related information with local, state, private sector and federal partners, including the Department of Homeland Security. (Colorado has a similar process.)

“The fusion center can look at it and perhaps see common phone numbers or computer servers and put things together (to determine who might be the sender),” Murfitt says. “We have had follow-up on these where people have been arrested, some of them for harassing state legislators while on their work computers.”

If those duties and many others sound like a lot of work, it’s because they are. The days can be long—Rosenthal says it’s not unusual to walk 12,000 steps in a shift. Because sergeants-at-arms are present from gavel to gavel, Judson says, working 200 hours in a month is not uncommon; on three occasions, he’s worked for more than 24 hours straight because of filibusters. And it’s hardly a lucrative job, as they are paid a flat fee with no additional money for overtime.

Montana’s Murfitt has actually expanded his work through membership in the National Legislative Services and Security Association, a staff association within NCSL. He serves on the group’s executive board and takes part in the planning of annual training on a variety of issues.

All that work doesn’t diminish these officers’ job satisfaction. Judson still marvels at the “behind-the-scenes access to the building and how just about anything can happen on any day.” Rosenthal loves how “you feel like you’re part of the process.”

For Murfitt, his favorite part of the job might be the informal sergeant-at-arms’ credo: “Making all the magic happen to support the legislators without them seeing what goes on behind the scenes.”

Joe Rassenfoss is a Denver-based freelancer.

Protection by Design

Peggy Van Eepoel
Van Eepoel

Peggy Van Eepoel established and leads the protective design and security practice at Thornton Tomasetti in Washington, D.C. She has helped design and structurally “harden” more than 200 buildings, including facilities for the U.S. State Department, General Services Administration, Defense Department and Veterans Administration, as well as many state capitol and judicial campuses. Her work includes protective-design approaches for new construction, as well as renovations and historic restorations. NCSL spoke with Van Eepoel about the work of making sure buildings are not attractive targets.

You conduct threat, vulnerability and risk assessments, also known as TVRA. What does that entail?

It takes several things into account, including an assessment of the likelihood of criminal and/or terrorist threats, the corresponding impact (human impact, economic, reputational, functional), the vulnerability of the facility to each threat and the calculation of the risk. The TVRA helps highlight which threats pose the highest risk, which is different from which threat is the most likely. An example of this is in a neighborhood park, (where) the likelihood of vandalism could be very high but the corresponding impact low, and therefore, the risk could be determined to be relatively low. Contrast that with an attack by a truck laden with explosives: The likelihood is very low, but the corresponding impact would be very high, and therefore, the risk could be determined to be higher than vandalism at the same location. The goal is to mitigate the threats that are the highest risk.

What are some techniques for retrofitting buildings with safety features?

Common practices include physical and operational security measures combined with technology. For example, a building lobby may have security improvements that include a combination of a ballistic resistant security desk (physical), bag check policies and procedures (operational) and a visitor management system (technology).

What architectural elements are being designed into new construction to improve security?

For buildings that are concerned with the civil unrest threat, we have seen exterior fenestration that is both ballistic resistant and protects against forcible entry, roll-down shutters that can be deployed, and non-climbable features (the façade does not provide handholds/footholds). We also see attention being paid to landscaping and/or fencing that provides a delineation of the building property and may have features that detect and deter unauthorized individuals from approaching.

What advice would you give to public officials about improving security in the buildings where they work?

Understand your highest risk threats and address them first. Often, we walk through a building with the stakeholders, and it becomes apparent certain vulnerabilities can be easily mitigated (trimming landscaping to improve camera sightlines) and others that may be part of a longer-term capital improvement program (replacing outdated camera technology). This information can be used to develop a plan to incrementally improve security, which helps clients make progress on what can seem like an overwhelming undertaking.

—Joe Rassenfoss

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