Out of Line

Posted May 23, 2003 at 4:03pm

In a particularly ill-timed outburst, members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch launched an attack on the Capitol Police last week, just as the federal government raised the terrorism alert level to orange. Only one other day could have been more inappropriate: July 24, the not-far-off fifth anniversary of crazed gunman Russell Weston’s killing of two police officers.

Maybe it was security fatigue, jurisdictional rivalry with the House Administration Committee or personal quirkiness, but last week Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) questioned the need for more police and complained about heightened security precautions. They also alleged that Members had lost control of the Capitol Police and leveled what can only be described as attacks against Chief Terrance Gainer. Moran, for instance, accused Gainer of seeking “to create his own army.” It was all out of line.

We don’t like concrete barriers and closed streets any more than the lawmakers do. Or the fact that the Capitol Dome has been closed to visitors. In fact, without crediting Kingston’s outburst that closing the Dome was “one more example of police-state arrogance,” we’d urge its reopening when enough police are on duty to make it safe. In general, though, we support Gainer’s request to increase the force from 1,437 officers to 1,833. And we believe he’s got it right on other issues he was grilled about: protecting Members away from the Capitol complex (or even in their districts) when they receive death threats, and being able to exercise police powers outside the immediate Capitol area.

An increase in police personnel is necessary to ensure that two or three officers are always on duty at key Capitol and office building entrances. Moran and later Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) opined that no amount of security could prevent a determined terrorist from killing people. But it’s worth remembering what happened on July 24, 1998: Weston burst through the Capitol’s Document Door and killed Officer Jacob Chestnut, the lone policeman on duty there. He might have been stopped on the spot had two officers been assigned to that post. He was stopped only because other officers, including Detective John Gibson, happened to cross his path. Gibson was killed, preventing Weston from murdering others.

As it turns out, it’s simply untrue that the police are not answerable to Congress. House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) says the police never act unilaterally. “We [his committee] probably spend 60 percent of our time on police only. I am talking countless hours on this stuff.”

We’re sorry, too, that security has to be such a pervasive concern on Capitol Hill. We join Kingston in thinking that, ideally, the Capitol “should be a little more open to mom and pop from Peoria.” Unfortunately, for the time being, we have to be more attentive to Sept. 11, July 24 and the fact that someone tried to kill Senators with anthrax.