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.”
Gainer said that for the Senate, the number of cases reported represents a “slight uptick” from previous years.
He agreed with Schneider that there’s been a shift in attitude toward taking threats seriously and suggested that the increase in threats could correlate with a new appreciation for reporting incidents as they occur.
Since the Tucson attack, which left six dead, including Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, and 13 wounded, lawmakers have been consistently better at asking for security assistance before hosting large-scale constituent events.
“They now know how to prepare for events big and small and know what to look out for, who to touch base with if they need assistance,” Gainer said. “When planning for an event in the past, the planning, I don’t think, ever included a security component, and I believe it does now.”
Gainer is optimistic that a DVD on security tips that the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms’ office is releasing in the next couple of months will also have a long-lasting effect.
The intangible nature of many of the security steps taken in the past year is part choice — better coordination is a good idea in any circumstance — and part necessity.
In fiscal 2012, Capitol Police will be flat-funded at $340 million.
Some House appropriators had hoped to provide $1 million to the Capitol Police to implement a program to strengthen security in Members’ district offices, but the provision was not included in the fiscal 2012 omnibus spending bill because Capitol Police did not have the resources to make such a program possible, according to an Appropriations Committee aide.
The bill’s conference report does include language, though, that would instruct the House Sergeant-at-Arms and the Capitol Police to assist Members in selecting district office locations that “yield greater security with less cost.”
The House Chief Administrative Officer is charged with doing more outreach to help Members negotiate such leases.
While the House Sergeant-at-Arms received a small increase from the fiscal 2011 allocation, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms budget was trimmed by 5 percent.
Gainer said finances haven’t been much of a problem for his team, though.
Earlier this year, he hired a new assistant Sergeant-at-Arms for intelligence and protective services to oversee security for dignitaries, intelligence operations and interaction with local and state law enforcement.
“We always wish we had more rubles to do things, but we’ve been able to prioritize,” he said.