Airport-style security checkpoints at the state Capitol were being quietly dismantled this week, underscoring the post-9/11 balancing act...
OLYMPIA — Airport-style security checkpoints at the state Capitol were being quietly dismantled this week, underscoring the post-9/11 balancing act that states face between safety and access.
The Legislature, which had authorized the heightened security in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, has backed away from the decision, and the machinery was to be gone by today.
The move will save more than $2 million in the next two years, but more importantly, will send a signal of openness, said Rich Nafziger, chief administrator for the House of Representatives.
Checkpoints were set up at all public doors when the stately, sandstone Capitol was reopened last fall after a $120 million face-lift. Hundreds of legislators, lobbyists, reporters, employees and visitors had to queue up for airport-style briefcase and backpack X-rays and metal-detector checks, though waits were seldom very long and the magnetic detectors weren’t set at a very sensitive level.
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The $1 million pilot project used leased equipment and 27 security guards.
But the checkpoints were controversial, and some legislators opposed them from the very start. Chief Justice Gerry Alexander made pointed remarks about open government when he declared that the nearby Temple of Justice was open for business without screening.
When it came time to write the new biennial budget, a critic was in a good position to prevail: Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Sommers said many of her colleagues had chafed under the lock-down feel of checkpoints and cheered when she announced there would be no money in the new budget for the security posts.
“I guess it was supposed to be a response to 9/11, but we’re way past that now, and we went years without it,” she said yesterday. “And we had this kind of security only on the one building, not on the buildings where all the public hearings are held.”
From November through May, the checkpoints screened 501,000 people, X-rayed 175,000 items and kept five guns and 94 knives out of the building. Under state law, 45 people with concealed-weapons permits were allowed to carry the weapons in the Capitol.
The huge Capitol houses the House and Senate chambers, executive offices for the governor and other elected officials, and public spaces, including a cafe, conference center, rotunda and galleries.
The governor and lieutenant governor have security details, and the Legislature has doormen and sergeants-at-arms while in session. Cars and delivery trucks are no longer allowed into a basement parking garage under the Capitol, and adjacent parking lots are closely monitored. Some closed-circuit TV monitors remain, and patrol cars and troopers are a familiar sight on the campus overlooking Puget Sound.
Nafziger said building employees don’t seem concerned about the removal of the security checkpoints.
Capt. Jeff DeVere of the State Patrol said troopers assigned to the Capitol Campus are working with security experts for the Department of General Administration on a new security plan.
Kae Warnock, who has tracked capitol security for the National Conference of State Legislatures for the past 13 years, said every state is having similar conversations.
With Washington opting out, 19 states now have magnetometers, or metal detectors, though many have them on standby, she said. Some, such as Florida, had the screening in place before the terrorist attacks, and others responded afterward, she said.
Her list consists of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Both Salem, Ore., and Boise, Idaho, have easy access into their capitols.
Many states are upgrading security, and although some, such as Colorado and now Washington, have pulled out their screening machines, the total number of machines is likely to grow over time, Warnock said.