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The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., has pushed the issue of security at the Capitol onto the front burner. But it is hardly a new subject:

Arizona shootings rattle St. Paul

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Minnesota Legislative Auditor James Nobles’ office conducted the last review of Capitol security in 2009, recommending a Capitol security advisory panel. (Photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Repeated recommendations to beef up security at the Capitol Complex over the years have largely been ignored

The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., has pushed the issue of security at the Capitol onto the front burner. But it is hardly a new subject:

• In 1973 the Minnesota Department of Administration recommended that a Capitol Security Advisory Committee be created to provide guidance on safety issues at the Capitol Complex.

• Nearly two decades later, a task force created by the Departments of Administration and Public Safety to study Capitol security issues similarly recommended establishing a Security Issues Network.

• Then, in 2000, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension advocated forming a Capitol Complex Security Oversight Committee. The Legislature created such a body, but dissolved it a few years later owing to inactivity.

• Finally, two years ago, the Office of the Legislative Auditor recommended creating a Capitol Complex security advisory committee.

Despite these repeated calls – spanning four decades and involving officials from numerous state agencies – there is still no entity charged with monitoring and modifying security provisions at the Capitol. That lack of action on a seemingly simple matter of widespread consensus is symptomatic of the neglect that security issues have received over the years.

Gov. Mark Dayton has indicated that he will meet with Republican legislative leaders to discuss the issue soon.

“We only respond to security when there is a tragedy,” said Legislative Auditor James Nobles, whose office completed the most recent report on Capitol security issues. “That’s unfortunately the pattern. It’s the pattern this report was trying to break.”

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, has also long voiced concerns about security at the Capitol. He believes that the Arizona shootings could finally generate momentum on the issue. “I think there’s a whole opportunity here, not only because of this horrible tragedy, but also because we have all new leadership who can take a fresh look at report after report after report that are already there,” Hansen said. “There are recommendations that have been made that need to be followed up on.”

The Capitol Complex is not limited to the Capitol building itself. It also includes a dozen parking lots, the Minnesota Judicial Center, the State Office Building and offices for thousands of state workers. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety is responsible for security at the Capitol Complex. The top official is required to be a licensed peace officer and a member of the Minnesota State Patrol. But most security personnel are not licensed officers and have limited enforcement authority.

Although security officials deal with thousands of security incidents annually, the vast majority are nonthreatening: Between 2004 and 2008, Capitol security officials issued an average of roughly 3,000 parking tickets each year. In that same period, there were 10 incidents involving terroristic threats.

Capt. Matt Langer, a spokesman for the State Patrol, says there have been security improvements since the release of the legislative auditor’s report, including changes to staffing and surveillance. “It’s incorrect to say we took the legislative auditor’s report and then didn’t do anything with it,” Langer said. “Security is something that you can constantly improve. I don’t think you ever get to the point where you’re done with improving security.”

Perhaps the most dramatic possible change would be to install metal detectors at the Capitol. According to a 2010 report by the National Conference of State Legislators, Minnesota was among 23 states that had no such security devices at public entrances to their state Capitols. Four states have added metal detectors since 2008.

Dayton said at a news conference on Monday that he would not support installing metal detectors at the Capitol. Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, was noncommittal on the issue, but argued that the Capitol must remain open to the general public. “We’d like to keep this the people’s house,” Koch said at a news conference on Monday. “We’d like to keep it welcoming and friendly.”

Hansen suggests a less burdensome measure: installing metal detectors outside the legislative chambers. Only people who wanted to view House or Senate proceedings would need to pass through security.

In addition, Hansen wants to see less dramatic security measures expedited. For instance, last year’s bonding bill included $1.25 million for security improvements – mainly involving barriers to protect various buildings from vehicles. Construction is slated to begin in April or May, but Hansen wants to push that date forward. “Let’s get going on them,” he said.

Some fear, however, that security measures will inevitably go too far. Rich Neumeister, a veteran advocate for open government, worries that citizen lobbyists like him will lose access at the Capitol. “It’s important that there’s equity across the board, from citizens to the highest-paid lobbyist,” Neumeister said.

Nobles, the legislative auditor, suggests there is a reason that progress has been so slow on security issues: Legislators are loath to be seen taking extraordinary measures to ensure their own safety. But he argues that the public is equally at risk when security is lax. “The target of the shooting in Arizona was the congresswoman, but six other people were killed and many other people wounded,” he noted. (Giffords survived and was breathing on her own on Wednesday.) “Whether they are the target or not, they certainly can be the victims.”

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