A crush of visitors protesting state education policies is expected at the state legislative building for the start of the short session Wednesday, May 16. They will be met with a million-dollar security upgrade requiring an entry screening.
Until now, people entering the building, which houses House and Senate chambers, have had unfettered access.
“All this poses security risks. Everybody we talked to, all the security experts, told us there was a consistent theme: You lock it down as tight as you can,” said Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble. “We’ve got to be careful about what comes in we don’t put our eyes on.”
A soft opening of the security checkpoints May 7 proved that point, he said.
“They caught 15 knives, and I’m not talking little pocket knives,” Coble said. “I think it stunned everybody that there are people walking around and thinking it’s OK to come in with a knife.”
The new system includes X-ray machines and metal detectors at lobby entrances on the Jones Street front and Lane Street back sides of the building. Screeners manning those machines have experience with the federal Transportation Security Administration or other agencies that used screening equipment.
Lawmakers and staff will have access cards allowing them through an expedited turnstile entrance. All others entering the building will use a separate door with metal detectors and X-ray screening, similar to an airport or large arena, Coble said.
Laptops, briefcases, purses, and packages will be scanned for prohibited items. Those include aerosol containers, electric stun guns, martial arts weapons or devices, knives of any size, mace and pepper spray, guns, replica guns, ammunition, fireworks, any weapon facsimile, razors and box cutters, pets or animals — guide and assistance animals are permitted — batons and nightsticks, any other item or device that can be considered a dangerous weapon.
School groups are frequent visitors to the legislative building and will be subject to screening.
Coble said screeners will move large groups through as quickly as possible, with minimal interference to general public access. If the public line gets clogged, security could steer student groups through the legislative member entrance and redirect lawmakers and staff through basement entrances.
Smokers have used the six side doors, and safety studies have shown they propped the doors open, creating a security risk. In the new protocol, those doors are locked down as emergency exits. If opened, an alarm will sound, and General Assembly security will respond.
Stronger entry barriers were installed, and basement access tightened so “some random person can’t come along, drive in with malintent, and either enter the building that way or detonate a bomb,” Coble said.
Secure guard outposts were added, and roll-up doors with smaller openings were installed to keep out large panel trucks. General Assembly members and staff with basement parking privileges can use access cards to open a gate arm and the doors.
Traffic patterns were changed for basement parking. Vehicles must enter on the Salisbury Street side and exit on Lane Street. Pedestrian doors will be at those entrances for lawmakers and staff.
Exact costs aren’t yet available, but Coble said the upgrades are between $1.2 million and $1.3 million.
The separate legislative office building — where most committee meetings occur, and which houses many lawmakers’ offices — is getting some minor security upgrades. More sweeping security changes will be implemented later, after officials see how well the system worked in the legislative building during the short session.