Vermont tackles security, access at government buildings

AP News
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Posted: Feb 26, 2015 6:12 PM

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Issues from same-sex marriage to gun rights to health care have brought hundreds of impassioned Vermont residents to public hearings at their Statehouse, and lawmakers have long prided themselves on their deliberations being accessible to the citizenry.

But in an age of mass shootings and fears of terrorist attacks, new attention is being given to security around the capitol complex in Montpelier. And at a legislative committee hearing on Thursday and in conversations around the building, it was said to be lacking in important ways.

Many statehouses nationwide have beefed up security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, installing metal detectors and stationing guards at the doors. Vermont posts extra police at the Statehouse doors on special occasions, such as Gov. Peter Shumlin's third inauguration last month. But it has no metal detectors and just one security camera, trained on a delivery truck bay at the rear of the building.

Lawmakers said they had received no training on how to respond to emergencies.

"There's been not one fire drill in the seven years I've been here," said Rep. Brian Savage, R-Swanton, the assistant House minority leader.

Four different entities provide security at the Statehouse and two neighboring buildings that house the state Supreme Court and the governor's and other executive-branch offices.

Capitol Police patrol the Statehouse halls. Security guards hired by the Department of Buildings and General Services patrol the grounds and parking lots and provide security on the ground floor of the Pavilion executive office building. The judiciary contracts with the Washington County Sheriff's Department to provide security at the Supreme Court. A small Vermont State Police team provides personal security to the governor.

If one of those agencies becomes aware of a dangerous situation, it has no way of automatically notifying the other three, officials told the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. The best solution, it was agreed, would be to call 911.

Lawmakers discussed specific vulnerabilities of the buildings, from the driveway behind the capitol where trucks pull up to deliver supplies to the cafeteria to the fact that only one sheriff's deputy guards the Supreme Court building.

Mick Bullock, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said 27 states have metal detectors at public entrances and 31 states have security either at the capitol entrance, at the chamber or in the halls of the capitol. Some states have limited the number of entrances into the capitol as a security measure, he said.

But before there is any discussion of adding metal detectors or additional security cameras in Montpelier, "We're talking about people. We're talking about how they interact. We're talking about putting plans in place," Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, the chairwoman of the committee, said in an interview after the meeting.

A bill pending in Emmons' committee would transfer authority over the capitol complex security to the State Police. The deputy director of that agency, Lt. Colonel Matt Birmingham, told the committee that the force can send troopers in special circumstances, as happened at Shumlin's inauguration, and would deploy tactical teams if there were an "active shooter" or some other serious situation.

But he said the State Police are short-staffed for their current duties, a situation that could worsen in the next few years, and not in a position to add a full-time presence at the Statehouse.

"For the State Police, if the discussion is to put troopers on the ground here, we are not prepared to do that in our current situation," said Birmingham, saying that 35 percent of the current force is expected to be gone by 2020 because of attrition and retirement.

Some lawmakers said they wanted to maintain the Statehouse as "the people's house," and were leery of adding more security.

"I'm opposed to turning the place into a prison," said Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre independent in his 21st year in the Legislature. "It's fine the way it is. We can't be responsible for the nuts that are out there."