Sign of times: Metal detectors coming to Connecticut Capitol

Without a formal vote or public hearing, the Connecticut General Assembly’s four top leaders have approved the installation of metal detectors at the State Capitol complex, embracing an oft-rejected precaution now common at courthouses, congressional offices, federal buildings and many other public institutions.

Notice of the change was made Friday by the State Capitol Police Department. It was applauded by some legislators, while others endorsed it only with great reluctance, including at least two of the four leaders who signed off on what was a police recommendation.

“I’m sad about it,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “This has been my home in some ways for 21 years now. The fact is we’re now at this place with our society and our fears, which are especially heightened after Newtown. But going down this route is sad.”

Metal detectors have been used only sporadically at the Capitol complex, most recently in January 2013, when thousands of people, mostly gun owners opposed to gun controls proposed after the school massacre in Newtown, were screened before entering the Legislative Office Building.

Sometime after the start of the legislative session next month, every visitor will have to pass through metal detectors to gain entrance to the Capitol and adjacent Legislative Office Building. All bags and packages will be screened. The Capitol gets about 150,000 visitors annually, including 25,000 students on tours, according to police.

More than $100,000 is appropriated in the current budget for the purchase of metal-detector entries, x-ray machines and portable metal-detecting wands.

“When it comes to the public’s safety at the Capitol and Legislative Office Building, the leaders depend on the expertise of our Capitol Police, and accepted their recommendations for enhanced security to better protect all our visitors and everyone who works here,” said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.

According to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2007, about half the nation’s State Capitols  use of metal detectors. Capitol Police here said they made their recommendation after viewing security in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. All three have metal detectors, as do Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

For decades, legislators in Connecticut resisted recommendations by police to add metal detectors as a permanent feature at the Capitol and Legislative Office Building.

“The general sense was — and this was before 9-11, too, — the general sense was this is a public place. It’s open. We don’t need to do it. I never pushed it. I felt secure,” said Thomas D. Ritter, who was House speaker for six years, begining in January 1993.

Instead, legislators tried to keep a sense of unfettered public access, opting for more subtle measures. Security officers in blue blazers were stationed by every door and an elaborate system of camera surveillance was installed. A Capitol police force was created in 1996, ending the State Police oversight of the complex.

But Ritter, who says he was the target of threats that merited plain-clothes police protection for a time, said security threats have grown, raising questions about how best to protect the public, legislators and staff.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “Sign of the times.”

Cafero said he personally had no desire to see metal detectors installed, but he agreed to them in deference to legislative staff, some of whom felt besieged by an angry public after Newtown.

“There are staff members here every day, and they fear for their safety,” Cafero said.

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, the longest-serving member of the House, said she welcomed the change.

“I think it’s necessary,” she said. “In my time there I’ve seen people who were mentally unstable coming in and causing harm to themselves on the premises. I’ve also seen people attempt to reach public officials to cause harm.”

In the early 1980s, she said , she saw State Police intercept a person with a concealed handgun trying to reach the office of Gov. William A. O’Neill. The state’s governors for decades have had State Police protection.

Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, another long-serving legislator, objected to the change, saying it sends a sublte signal to the public that they are not welcome. He said he does not believe the threat level warrants the detectors at the Capitol, though he sees the need at courthouses.

“I’m not happy about it. I know it’s been through discussions, and after 9-11 it got a lot of attention,” O’Neill said. “I think it creates a sense of inaccessibility.”

O’Neill, who is a member of the Legislative Management Committee, said he thought the decision should have been made publicly by the committee. It was signed off by Sharkey, Cafero, Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brookly, and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield.

“I’ve never been one who believed we needed metal detectors at the our Capitol,” McKinney said. “I personally have never felt any concerns at any time at the Capitol. Because we refer to it as the ‘people’s house,’ I always wanted t keep it as open to the people as possible.”

McKinney said the leaders ultimately deferred to the strong recommendation of Walter Lee, the chief of the State Capitol Police Department, who made the case that the Capitol and its occupants were vulnerable to dangers that could be greatly minimized security measures common in surrounding states.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who like Mushinksy was elected in 1980, said staff and the families of legislators have long wanted enhanced security.

“I agree it was a regrettable but necessary move to make,” Looney said.

Williams could not be reached for comment.

Cafero said police made recommendations to the chiefs of staff for the four caucus leaders, and the leaders agreed on an option that will allow legislators, employees and others with Capitol credentials, which includes reporters assigned to the Capitol, to bypass the metal detectors.

“I’m disappointed at the need for them,” said House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “But I fully understand why.”

In some states, metal detectors were added after specific incidents, few more dramatic than in Colorado, where police shot an armed man to death in 2007 as he demanded to see Gov. Bill Ritter in the Capitol bulding in Denver.

Gun laws and gun culture have been a complicating factor in some places, as gun owners with carry permits objected to be denied the right to carry in a public building.

The Texas Legislature made national news in 2010 with its new screening protocol: Holders of gun carry permits could bypass the metal detectors, which prompted legislative reporters, lobbyists and others who obtain the permits to ease access into the Capitol in Austin.

That will not be an issue in Hartford. Only police officers are permitted to carry firearms in the Connecticut Capitol.

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