Threats against state lawmakers are raising concerns about security at Missouri’s Capitol, where lawmakers, employees and visitors enter and exit through numerous unlocked doors without passing through any visible security measures.
“I just feel a lot less at ease this session,” said state Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who was one of those recently threatened.
Last month, six lawmakers returned to their offices and found orange stickers with the image of rifle crosshairs on the nameplates outside their doors.
And just last week, an email directed at four Missouri senators made reference to Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was severely wounded last year during a shooting rampage in Arizona that left six people dead.
Brent Brown, chairman and CEO of the security firm Chesley Brown International, said the level of security at Missouri’s Capitol is severely lacking, especially in regards to how many entrances are left unlocked throughout the day.
“If you’re a state capitol and you don’t control access to the building, you don’t have security at all,” said Brown, who has worked in law enforcement and private security for more than 30 years.
Armed Capitol Police patrol inside and outside the building, and video surveillance cameras are strategically placed at various entrances and around the governor’s office. But there are no cameras monitoring the long hallways inside the Capitol where legislative offices are located.
Metal detectors were installed at the Missouri Capitol after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but they were removed in 2003 during a budget crunch. Lawmakers didn’t appropriate the funding needed to pay for them and the private contractors that staffed them, said Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than half of state capitols across the country use metal detectors. Illinois installed metal detectors in 2004 after an unarmed security guard was shot in the Capitol. Iowa has had metal detectors and X-ray scanners in its Capitol since 2002.
A Feb. 15 incident in Topeka raised security concerns when authorities found a pickup truck containing homemade explosives across the street from the Kansas Capitol. The discovery came on the same day police arrested a Columbia, Mo., man with making harassing calls to the governor’s office.
Kansas Capitol Police are reluctant to talk in any detail about security measures, but they have officers who patrol every state building in Shawnee County.
Police funnel people through X-ray machines and metal detectors in two locations, one on the east side of the Capitol, and one for people entering through an underground garage. Other Statehouse workers can bypass security with a special card.
Another entrance to the Capitol is through an underground tunnel from a state office building across the street. But there are security cameras in the tunnel, and access is restricted after the close of business.
There also are security cameras inside and outside the Capitol, but police wouldn’t disclose how many or their locations.
Even at City Hall in Kansas City, visitors are limited to one of three entrances and must pass through metal detectors.
In 2007, following an incident in Colorado when an armed man was shot and killed by the governor’s security detail, Missouri Capitol Police Chief Todd Hurt asked lawmakers for funds to increase Statehouse security. He suggested bringing visitors through one entrance and screening them with metal detectors and X-ray machines, along with redirecting traffic around the building.
But lawmakers never signed off on the money needed to make the changes.
Hunt, who still serves as chief of the Missouri Capitol Police, did not respond to a request by The Star for comment. O’Connell said the department does not discuss security procedures.
Over the years, the Capitol Police have suffered budget cuts and staff reductions just like every agency of state government. In 2008, the state appropriated the department roughly $1.65 million. The governor’s fiscal year 2013 budget suggests a smaller $1.3 million appropriation.
According to state budget figures, the number of full-time-equivalent employees has dropped from 40 in 2009 to 32 in 2012.
The problem, security expert Brown said, is that when the economy is bad and state budgets are tight, the need for protection is even greater.
“You have people feeling the economic strains, and that puts them on edge,” he said. “And the vulnerability of legislators cannot be overestimated.”
But it’s not just about lawmakers, Brown said. Visitors pack the Capitol every day — including many school groups with hundreds of children.
“If someone wants to cause harm, it won’t just be elected officials who are in danger,” he added.
Legislators, their staff and statewide officials are allowed to carry a concealed firearm inside the Capitol building. For everyone else, however, firearms are prohibited.
After the crosshairs sticker incident last month, Democratic Sen. Robin Wright-Jones of St. Louis sponsored legislation that would require the installation of 32 new video surveillance cameras to monitor hallways around the Capitol.
“We need to be more prudent about how we protect our constituents when they visit, our staff when we are gone and ourselves during session,” Wright-Jones said.
She also has called for metal detectors to be re-installed at the Capitol.
But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who is protected by a security detail provided by the Missouri Highway Patrol, balked at the idea of metal detectors at the Capitol when asked recently on a St. Louis radio station.
“If we start spending a bunch of money and making everybody get wanded to come into their Capitol because a couple people put stickers on the wall, where are we as a society?” Nixon said.
Wright-Jones said Nixon’s comments displayed an overall lack of compassion and understanding about the crosshairs stickers incident, which remains under investigation.
Republican Sen. Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit noted that in the last month there has been a considerable increase in police presence and patrols around the Capitol. He’s open to discussing ways in which the statehouse security could be improved, but he believes that conversation must begin with the Capitol Police.
“If the Capitol Police believe it’s time to do something, I think we need to follow their guidance,” Kraus said. “I’m not an expert on things like this, so I’d listen to them to see what they think we need to be doing within a really tight budget.”
Justus said the cost of Wright-Jones’ video surveillance legislation, which depending on the type of cameras installed could be around $1 million, probably makes it a nonstarter during a tough budget year.
But there are other ideas that she said wouldn’t cost the state a dime that would improve security overnight.
“Can we close some of the entrances and lock some doors?” Justus said.
Brown agrees that making most doorways “exit only” would be a good first step. But reinstalling metal detectors and increasing video surveillance should also be a priority.
To ensure the safety of everyone at the statehouse, Brown said decision makers should “do some soul searching” and figure out just how much risk they are willing to accept.
“Let’s not wait until something happens before we take action,” he said.