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State capitols reassess safety after violence at US Capitol

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 8, 2021

By David A. Lieb Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The insurrection by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol this week has prompted governors and state lawmakers to reassess security at their own capitol buildings as they gather amid a pandemic for legislative sessions and inaugural ceremonies.

Like the U.S. Capitol, statehouses are regular targets for demonstrations. Many already have armed security personnel and metal detectors that screen visitors.

But if the U.S. Capitol – a shining symbol of democracy with a dedicated police force – can be overrun by a violent mob, could state capitols be next?

This week’s events were “a wakeup call for everybody, both in D.C. and in state capitals all across the country,” said Washington state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the chamber’s Republican leader.

A series of smaller-scale flare-ups occurred last year at state capitols. This spring, armed protesters forced their way into the Michigan Capitol to object to pandemic-related lockdowns, and people upset about the death of George Floyd smashed 28 windows at the Ohio statehouse.

In August, protesters temporarily derailed a special legislative session in Idaho. And just a few weeks ago, crowds in Oregon forced their way into the Capitol to protest its closure to the public during a special legislative session on coronavirus measures.

Officials at the Washington State Patrol have said there will be a substantial law enforcement presence at the Capitol when the Legislature convenes Monday. A right-wing militia had encouraged its members to occupy the Capitol when lawmakers meet, and that intention was echoed by several people who broke down a gate outside the governor’s mansion on Wednesday, the day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

An organizer of the planned occupation said in a later Facebook post that the event was canceled, although it’s not clear whether others who share right-wing views plan to show up, anyway.

In neighboring Idaho, where lawmakers also are scheduled to meet Monday, State Police Col. Kedrick Wills said there will be an increased presence of uniformed state troopers at the statehouse. Anxieties are high for some lawmakers.

“We are being forced into one of the most dangerous workplaces in the state,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, noting a lack of COVID-19 protection efforts. “Now, layered onto that, we’re at a point where emotions are at their absolute peak and armed conspiracy theorists are ready to burn it all down.”

The vast majority of state legislatures are convening this month. Though some are allowing remote participation because of coronavirus precautions, others are proceeding with regular in-person committee hearings and floor debates.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said security has been increased around the statehouse in advance of the legislative session that begins next Wednesday. In Massachusetts, which started its legislative session this week, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic legislative leaders issued a joint statement saying they were assessing the Capitol’s security in light of events in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

In Oregon, where Trump supporters burned a life-size puppet of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday, lawmakers have pledged to review Capitol safety rules and potentially increase security for the session that begins Jan. 19.

State police that oversee the New Mexico statehouse have taken steps to coordinate security with local law enforcement agencies in case “gatherings become other than peaceful,” said state police spokesman Lt. Mark Soriano.

Some state officials are rethinking their Capitol gun policies. In Michigan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Thursday that he would support a ban on the open carrying of firearms in the Capitol. Minority party Democratic lawmakers want to prohibit all guns in the building.

By contrast, some Texas lawmakers are talking of bringing more guns into the Capitol to protect themselves. Licensed handgun owners already can carry firearms into the Capitol, and some lawmakers have been known to wear guns in the chamber.

“Pretty sure more #txlege members are going to start carrying inside the Capitol,” Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain tweeted Thursday, a day after the Capitol grounds were abruptly shuttered as hundreds of Trump supporters demonstrated outside without any reported incidents.

The Republican Party of Texas was to hold another long-planned rally at the Capitol on Saturday to draw attention to legislative priorities.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is planning for more than a thousand guests to gather Monday on the lawn of the state Capitol for his inaugural ceremony. Department of Public Safety spokesman Mike O’Connell said plans have been in the works for months to provide “extensive security and crowd-control.”

As a mob stormed the nation’s capitol Wednesday, supporters and opponents of Trump also clashed outside the Ohio statehouse. Video footage showed multiple people in a street fight. Another violent altercation involving several people broke out later on the statehouse grounds, until law enforcement officers moved to separate the groups.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he could not promise that the statehouse wouldn’t be breached like the U.S. Capitol.

“No one can say they’re confident,” DeWine said, adding: “We’re certainly aware that something could happen.”

Some states already had stepped up security before the violence in the nation’s capital.

A fence remains at the Minnesota Capitol after being erected last summer amid the unrest over Floyd’s killing. It was in place Wednesday when around 500 Trump supporters held what was billed as a “Storm the Capitol” rally – a noisy but peaceful gathering with no arrests. State Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said increased security staffing will continue for the immediate future.

Colorado’s Capitol also remains encircled by fencing, with concrete barriers to block vehicles and its ground floor windows boarded up after vandals damaged it following Floyd’s death. Officials already planned to install stronger fencing, more security cameras and bullet-resistant glass for windows. Legislative leaders are focusing on any needed additional measures after the events in Washington, said Bella Combest, spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic leadership.

Police at the Mississippi Capitol are moving forward with a previously planned purchase of more security cameras and new machines to scan bags. The New Jersey statehouse is in the midst of a multiyear, $300 million renovation, with security listed as a top reason.

After the U.S. Capitol siege, New Jersey state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, leader of the chamber’s minority Republicans, raised concerns about security in public buildings.

“It is very difficult to understand how protesters were able to gain access to the Chamber in the Capitol,” Bramnick said in a tweet. “This is a very dangerous scenario that may encourage others to violate the law.”

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