In the year since Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded and an aide was killed in an attack at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz., the Congressional community has changed the way it thinks about security at home and on the Hill.
But rather than putting up new security checkpoints and tightening rules for entrance into the Capitol, the approach of lawmakers, staff and law enforcement officials has been more attitudinal than tangible.
With little new money to spend on security upgrades, the Hill’s chief law enforcement officers say they have focused instead on streamlining communication among Capitol Police, FBI, Secret Service and local law enforcement.
Aides say they are quicker to report threats left on voice mails or in emails.
In general, watching a colleague narrowly dodge death has had a profound effect on how the Congressional community thinks about what it needs to do to stay safe.
“It’s always important to make sure complacency doesn’t creep in,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer warned. “We have to make a conscious effort to always think ‘security, security.’”
House Members were particularly proactive in the aftermath of the shooting, some acting as their own judges on how to protect themselves.
Collectively, in the first quarter of 2011, Members paid the Department of Homeland Security $73,000 for protection of district offices in federal buildings — $20,000 more than Members paid to every private security company combined.
Some have also subtly shifted their own office budgets to boost security in district offices.
Rep. Michael Grimm, a freshman Republican from New York who is a former Marine and FBI agent, appointed a “personal security assistant.” Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield (N.C.), an Army veteran, said he wanted to install bulletproof glass and a digital combination keypad lock at his district office. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) pondered drafting legislation to allow Members to carry guns in the District of Columbia.
In the months that followed, there were also broader trends in how House Members were changing their attitudes toward safety.
Many House offices quickly designated staffers as “law enforcement coordinators.” Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the move has helped local and federal law enforcement agencies better coordinate when there are threats against Members.
More generally, Schneider said, she has seen in the past 12 months a greater awareness among Members and staffers in terms of reporting alarming incidents to law enforcement officials.
“People are more inclined to report their concerns to the USCP [and] are more vigilant and conscious about their personal security,” Schneider told Roll Call.
Schneider would not reveal the number of threats reported to Capitol Police, saying they were “maintained internally for threat assessment purposes.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.