N Carolina, other legislatures warily begin security checks

Posted at 8:55 AM, May 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-12 08:55:19-04

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — At the "People's House" in North Carolina, lawmakers have long considered unfettered access symbolic of their commitment to accessible government. As a matter of principle, leaders have avoided putting up any barriers at the statehouse that might prevent constituents from speaking directly to their representatives.

But growing worries within society about mass shootings and angry protests have finally tipped the scale.

Following other states, all visitors started going through metal detectors this past week to enter the Legislative Building, just ahead of the General Assembly session opening this Wednesday.

"I've always admired the fact — and been grateful for the fact — that it had been one of the most open government buildings you could find anywhere," said Jack Cozort, a longtime lobbyist who remembers first visiting the Legislative Building on an eighth-grade field trip a year after it opened in 1963. But he said colleagues knew sooner or later this "necessary evil was coming."

In addition to the metal detectors at the front and rear entrances, administrators also installed bag scanners, hired more monitors, strengthened parking garage entrances and purchased more high-tech equipment as part of the $1.3 million security upgrade.

"I am saddened that the world has changed and that these types of safety precautions have become necessary," said Senate leader Phil Berger, who with fellow Republican House Speaker Tim Moore signed off on the changes. "I expect our staff will continue to make every effort to ensure the Legislative Building is accessible and welcoming to the public."

The changes will be tested immediately: Teachers are planning a major rally for education funding that's expected to draw 10,000 demonstrators on the session's opening day. Even on normal days, delays could become routine as citizens — including lobbyists, advocates and schoolchildren — pass through the halls.

At least five other states have installed metal detectors since 2014, according to an Associated Press review. Thirty-two states now have metal detectors at the entrances to their legislative buildings or statehouses, the National Conference of State Legislatures says.

Many Western and Midwestern states have avoided such devices, but that's changing: The Missouri state Capitol installed detectors in early 2017. In Arkansas, which already had them at the Capitol doors, the state House added more detectors at the visitor entrances to its chamber last year. North Dakota installed them at its Capitol in late 2016 as protest activities increased in Bismarck related to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In North Carolina, "Moral Monday" protests against GOP policies after Republicans gained control of both the governor's mansion and the legislature in 2013 led to civil disobedience and more than 1,000 arrests.

Paul Coble, the Legislative Building's top administrator supervising the upgrades, said those demonstrators didn't prompt the detectors: "They didn't come here to do ill will. They come in to make a point."

But "there's certainty opportunity for people that have ill will to cause mayhem, so you have to deal with that," Coble added. "It's a balance of people having access and people being safe."

Indeed, North Carolina's lawmakers were warned about security weaknesses long ago. A U.S. Secret Service review completed just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks recommended more than 100 changes to the legislative complex. Many were carried out, and the General Assembly police force is more prominent.

Previous House speakers and Senate leaders could never bring themselves to require walkthrough metal detectors, but their colleagues and staff have become increasingly anxious about who or what could enter a building where tempers can flare over policies and politics.

"Courthouses in the counties have more protection than this building," said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican. He cited "the changing culture, the gun violence, the many mishaps and tragedies" for the alterations.

The General Assembly's 170 members and legislative employees will get to bypass the detectors, which are sure to cause lines during high-traffic times. There were massive lines at the metal detectors installed in 2016 in West Virginia's Capitol when teachers there demonstrated for nine days this year.

"I just wonder how it's all going to work," said North Carolina's House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, a Democrat who laments the "perception that it's not as open."

There were no public hearings about the security upgrades. Members of the post-9/11 generation, who have only experienced conspicuous security, say it's "crazy" that metal detectors weren't already protecting people inside the Legislative Building.

"If there is efficient security, I think that it is definitely something to be welcomed," said Anna Neil, 17, of Cary, visiting recently with a Christian youth leadership group.