Security at Iowa Statehouse still debated

Metal detectors installed 10 years ago

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Statehouse regulars like Peggy Huppert were skeptical when metal detectors went up and security was tightened at the ornate and tradition-bound Iowa Capitol building 10 years ago.

However, over time, the American Cancer Society lobbyist has cozied up to the idea, even though there are instances when it takes awhile to get into the building when bus loads of school kids or out-of-town association members form long lines to enter the seat of state government at the two public access points that scanned more than 148,000 entrants in 2011.

“At first, pretty much everybody complained about it and a lot of people thought it was not necessary — ‘this is Iowa; we don’t need something like this’ — and I would probably put myself in that camp because it can be kind of a pain,” said Huppert.

What changed her mind was the sometimes-volatile environment that ensued after the Iowa Supreme Court issued a 2009 ruling that legalized civil marriages for couples of the same sex. The ruling brought emotionally charged activists on both sides of the issue to the Capitol along with reports of threats against members of a politically divided General Assembly steeped in stalemate.

“Then it felt good to me to have that sense of security that a person with a grudge or who was feeling very angry or upset about the decision could not come into the Capitol with a weapon,” Huppert said.

It was concern over international terrorists rather than incensed Iowans that prompted the Legislature to install metal detector/X-ray machine stations — each costing about $100,000 at the time — at monitored entrances and card readers that limit off-hour access to authorized personnel in the months that followed the deadly attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The 9/11 disaster heightened security concerns at most public and high-profile venues around the country. Metal-detecting devices later were equipped in the Iowa Judicial Building, which opened in 2003.

Proponents said the new precautions were designed to balance government access for people with the demands of a safe work environment for state employees. Opponents, who still exist, felt the stepped-up precautions were excessive and gave the Capitol the feel of a corporate building rather than “the people’s house.”

“It’s security theater. It’s for show,” said Marty Ryan, who lobbies lawmakers on behalf of social justice and civil liberty interests. “You can still take your metal Sucrets box out of your pocket and slide it down (a side chute) so it doesn’t go through the metal detector and that thing could be full of plastique. We’re not saving anybody.”

The fact that some people don’t think security is tight enough and others think it’s too much gives Iowa State Patrol Capt. Mark Logsdon, head of Capitol security, a sense of comfort that state officials have struck “a perfect compromise” in an ever-evolving public arena.

“I think the Capitol is a pretty secure building,” said Logsdon, who works in an office near the Capitol that is equipped with monitors projecting images from more than 100 closed-circuit security cameras spread throughout the Capitol complex.

“I really don’t know why anyone would feel that it would be a necessary part of their day to carry a gun into the Capitol,” he said. “It’s comforting for me to know that the only people that might be armed are the people that work here that have a vested interest to keep the place safe.”

He noted that attacks have happened at other capitol buildings in other states and the nation’s capital, which keeps everyone vigilant at similar venues.

Former Iowa Senate President Mary Kramer, a West Des Moines Republican who played a lead role in getting tighter security measures approved by the Legislature, said she took some heat during the process but is more convinced every day that it was the right thing to do, especially as the political discourse becomes increasingly shrill and divisive.

“We had reports from a number of law enforcement agencies who encouraged us to go further than we actually went,” she said.

“The lobby was in a snit because we didn’t allow them to leave their bags in the Capitol overnight anymore,” Kramer recalled. “One thing that shocked me when I did that was learning how many of the elected officials actually carry guns. That was a stunner. They were just hostile toward me because they were kind of having to own up to the fact.”

Curtis Scott, a retired Dallas County deputy sheriff who has worked the Capitol security detail for nine years, said he is less concerned by what he sees visitors try to bring into the Capitol than he is by those who show up at the building entrance, see the metal detector and turn around and leave.

“They leave for a reason.” he said. “They don’t want to go through security.”

Scott said security officers still encounter some resistance to the entrance check points, but generally people have accepted the screening devices that are becoming common at county courthouses and state and federal buildings but that are much less intrusive that the body scanners being employed at U.S. airports.

Logsdon said the metal detectors turn up things like pocket knives and brass knuckles that security officers temporarily hold and then return to the people when they leave the building. Occasionally security officers will have to turn away someone who has a permit to carry a firearm but is not allowed to bring a weapon into the Capitol. Usually they will take the weapon back to their vehicle or leave, he said. On-duty active law enforcement officers are among the few people exempt from the Capitol’s no-weapons policy.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had any kind of altercation or incident where someone has tried to force their way through security or anything else like that,” he said.

Lawmakers recently called for a review of safety and security procedures at the Statehouse in the wake of an April incident in which a clerk for Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, opened an envelope containing white powder and a racially charged letter threatening them. The Capitol was locked down for about four hours. A hazardous materials team determined that the powder, which smelled like laundry detergent, was not dangerous. Further tests determined it was an antacid, Logsdon reported.

Some people object to the cost associated with tighter security at the Capitol, said Mark Willemsen, a legislative official who oversees Statehouse facilities management, but he noted “you never know what you may have stopped because of security, so it’s hard to put a figure on that.”

Huppert, who also travels regularly to the U.S. Capitol, said there is a stark contrast between security measures in Washington, D.C., and those in Des Moines.

“All you have to do is be in D.C. to appreciate one metal detector and our very friendly security people,” she said, “it’s just nothing compared to what you have to go through in D. C., there’s just layers and layers of security and you always feel on guard.”  

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