Statehouse Security Under Review
By Greg McDonald, Senior Writer
Following the shooting deaths of two police officers at the U.S. Capitol in 1998, the states undertook an appraisal of their own Capitol security measures and found them in many cases to be woefully inadequate.
Three years later, in the wake of the devastating Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the states are again reassessing security to see what more can be done to protect lawmakers and visitors alike while keeping capitol complexes as open as possible.
A few states, such as California, Connecticut, Georgia and South Carolina already have significant police details, sophisticated monitoring equipment, and strategies in place for dealing with just about any security threat.
Georgia, for example, has surrounded its Capitol with a fence which is patrolled by armed guards. There are metal detectors at every entrance and alarms, sensors and TV cameras throughout the building. But the majority of states have taken far fewer precautions against possible terrorist attacks or other potentially violent events.
A 1998 survey of state security personnel by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that only 11 states at that time had metal detectors at their capitol buildings. The survey showed that 14 states had mandatory security training programs for legislative members and employees, and only seven checked deliveries of mail, packages, supplies and other materials brought to capitol complexes.
Kae Warnock, an NCSL security liaison to the states, said lawmakers were reluctant to embrace new security measures for fear of discouraging public access.
"Legislators don't want to create the feeling among constituents that the (capitol) building no longer is theirs and, therefore, the legislative process is no longer theirs," Warnock said.
Warnock expects that most state legislatures will "ultimately, if nothing else, impose more restricted access" to state Capitols. But she said coming up with extra money for new high-tech security equipment and additional staff will be tough.
Most states, she said, will likely take steps that don't cost a lot of money, such as shifting more state troopers to capitol security details, closing some entrances and limiting hours and access to government buildings.
"State budgets are tight this year because (many states) have deficits, and they're going to have even bigger deficits next year, given the way things look right now," she said.Still, state capitol security chiefs across the country are dusting off old security proposals in hopes that lawmakers may now be ready to fund them. Tony Beard, chief sergeant-at-Arms for the California Senate, says he hopes lawmakers will allow him to build a perimeter fence, add more staff and improve threat assessment techniques when they return to Sacramento in October for a special session.
In the meantime, he says his staff has tightened security around the Capitol Building and other state offices, and are doing things that "mirror what they're doing federally" to improve security around the U.S. Capitol and other "symbols of our country and its government."
Public opinion polls indicate that most Americans are willing to deal with the inconveniences of tightened security at airports and government facilities. But they are still wary of going too far with some measures , such as increased telephone and email monitoring, they fear might lead to a weakening of personal privacy and freedoms.
In Iowa, colleges and universities are also raising concerns about the possible loss of freedoms for many foreign students. The state's schools have joined with some 120 other colleges around the country to protest the federal government's monitoring of foreign students while in the U.S. The Immigration and Naturalization Service initiated a student tracking system, complete with identity cards, after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. It's expected to be fully operational by 2003.
In other developments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the nation's governors to coordinate future assistance efforts to Virginia and New York through the National Governors Association.
"We are pleased so many governors have already provided assistance," said NGA Chairman Gov. John Engler of Michigan. "But New York and Virginia have been flooded with assistance that hasn't been well-coordinated."