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Audit: Capitol security inadequate

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Students entering the Capitol
Students and other visitors stream into the main entrance to the Minnesota State Capitol. The building has no metal detectors.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

As governments go, it doesn't get much more open than Minnesota's. The door to the state House and Senate, even the governor's office, is virtually wide open. Minnesota also ranks 47th in the nation in the number of sworn police officers. 

But a new study says Minnesota needs to re-examine the risks and perhaps take some unwelcome steps.

Number of sworn officers in state capitols
This chart shows sworn officers in states' capitol complex security operations, excluding executive protection activities to the extent possible. For some states, the chart shows a range; the gray portion of the bar indicates the number of sworn staff added at peak times (for example, during the legislative session). For Wisconsin, the gray portion represents 20 sworn staff employed on a part-time basis. Two states' totals include sworn staff from more than one agency (California and North Carolina). Michigan's sworn officers are not state-certified peace officers, thus limiting their law enforcement authority. SOURCE: Office of the Legislative Auditor, analysis of February-April 2009 phone calls to states' capitol complex security agencies and reviews of agency web site data.
State Auditor

Legislative auditor James Nobles' staff issued the report.

"I don't think you can truly have security here unless you have some kind of weapons screening," Nobles said. "Because what we have today is anybody can walk into this building with a weapon. Undetected. Undeterred. I don't think that makes for a safe environment."

The auditor's report itself stops short of recommending metal detectors for the Capitol. 

But it says:

- Civilian security guards need better training.

- The Capitol and surrounding state buildings need more armed police officers.

- State officials need to do a better job of planning for emergencies.

Nobles himself, though, conceded that securing the most public building in Minnesota won't come without controversy.

"I think security by its very nature is often controversial, because it creates a certain amount of inconvenience for people," he said. "I think from where we are today, there would be an inconvenience. Today, most people can walk in here from almost any direction of the Capitol complex without any restrictions whatsoever."

Lawmakers reacted cautiously to the report's recommendations. 

As recently as 2006, a secret Minnesota National Guard study catalogued security risks in and around the Capitol. Other capitols have been the scenes of shocking violence. Police shot dead a gun-waving man amidst crowds of tourists in Colorado's state house in 2007, and a man shot and killed an unarmed security guard at the Illinois Capitol in 2004.

Security sign
Visitors to the Minnesota State Capitol will encounter this sign at most of the entrances, which require a security card to enter. The south main entrance has no security card requirement.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

But little has changed in St. Paul.

Lawmakers like Republican Senator David Hann, of Eden Prairie, thinks that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hann is on the Legislative Audit Commission, which held a hearing today about the report.

"There's the general concern about a large building, lots of public access, lots of perhaps reason why there might be a little bit more anger at some times of the year than others of what goes down here," Hann  said. "But I think we need to be very careful that we're not overreacting or sending the signal that there's a huge problem, or doing things that would be impeding the ability of the public to have access here. I think it's important."

Others think the state risks ignoring some tragic precedents, like the shooting last year at a county board meeting in Little Falls. 

DFL Sen. Ann Rest, of New Hope, talked about the maze of metal detectors that went up after a slaying in the Hennepin County Courthouse six years ago.

Entering the Capitol
Visitors stream into the main entrances to the Capitol, which has no metal detectors.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"It certainly is inconvenient, but they waited to do that until someone was killed in the building," Rest said. "I would not like to be responsible for that happening here, because we made an assumption about the safety of the building that was not warranted."

Reaction to the idea was also mixed among visitors to the Capitol.

Cecilia Elliott is a teacher from Rochester, one of more than a dozen teachers visiting lawmakers. She was struck immediately by the openness of Minnesota's Capitol.

"As I walked into the building my comment was, oh my goodness, the security is really tight around here. Just kind of sarcastically," Elliott said. "I appreciate the fact that people feel free to come into the Capitol building. On the other hand, I think it is necessary to be a lot more on the safe side."

But others said that openness at the Capitol encourages a tradition of citizen participation in Minnesota.

Capitol security door
Most entrances to the Capitol require a security card to get in.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"It's just such an open feeling that you know the public is welcome to come here," said Kathy Lohmer.

Lohmer, of Lake Elmo, was holding a "Defend Marriage" placard outside the House chamber this morning.

"I guess I would feel a little uncomfortable if everybody had to be searched every time they came here and it would take away the experience of coming here," she said. "It's such a positive thing, I think."

But Nobles, the legislative auditor, said it is people like Lohmer that his report is aimed at.

"I think some people will see this just as an effort to protect legislative leaders, executive leaders and state employees," Nobles said. "But I think people need to understand that this is protecting the public. This is protecting the citizens that come here and they come here by the thousands. So, I think there's a responsibility to provide public safety here in this Capitol complex, just like we do everywhere else."

The report suggests appointing a committee from the governor's office, the Legislature and the state courts to decide what that should look like.