Gun Incident Sparks Changes

Posted October 31, 2003 at 5:37pm

Shaken by intense criticism of their inability to get information to lawmakers and staff during a gun scare in the Cannon House Office Building last week, the Capitol Police Department will create a new emergency communications post.

On Friday, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer accepted responsibility for the communications breakdown — “It was my error,” he said — and acknowledged “the command climate was a bit too lackadaisical.”

A police official said the new post will operate much like that of an “incident commander” — the senior officer put in charge of a crime scene or other emergency — and will not be permanently assigned to any officer.

“Everyone’s concern is getting quick, accurate information,” Gainer said.

In addition, Capitol Police officials also planned to meet with high-ranking officers to review tactical issues and test screening equipment around the Capitol campus during the weekend.

The changes come in the wake of the highly publicized Thursday incident, in which two female staffers from Rep. John Shimkus’ (R-Ill.) office prompted a nearly two-hour manhunt after passing through a security checkpoint with a toy gun.

House officials have pledged to review the incident and find out why lawmakers and their staffs did not receive more immediate notification about the situation, even though Supreme Court security officials notified the justices and staff about 30 minutes from the start of the incident.

Many of the approximately 140 Members with offices in the Cannon House Office Building complained that the first notification they received came from television reports or even district offices rather than either of the methods implemented for such purposes: the Annunciator system — the House’s emergency intercom — or e-mail delivered to the BlackBerry devices carried by lawmakers.

“None of those things happened in our office,” said Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), who works in Cannon Room 108.

“The first thing we learned was about 30 minutes after the fact on TV,” he said. “That means there’s obviously some opportunity for improvement.”

Although House Administration Committee officials have repeatedly praised the rank-and-file officers’ conduct in handling the incident, they plan to conduct a “second-by-second, frame-by-frame” review of the event, asserting that mistakes were made in the communications process.

Specifically, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has raised concerns about the lapse that occurred after he issued a directive to notify lawmakers via the emergency notification systems.

Ney said Friday that he requested the notice “within a few minutes” of learning of the investigation around 1 p.m. However, a House-wide e-mail alert was not received by Members until 2:13 p.m.

The House Sergeant-at-Arms directed the Capitol Police to send an Annunciator message, which Gainer said was delayed because it required about 13 minutes to draft and receive “several clearances” before being sent to offices in Cannon. Subsequent Annunciator alerts were later issued to all House office buildings.

Gainer said the chain of command during the incident was “unclear,” and added: “A lot of people were trying to suggest what the message should be.”

However, an aide to Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood said the Capitol Police should have been aware of the proper procedures.

“In an emergency situation or life safety [situation] the Capitol Police does have the authority to send a message,” the aide said. “Bill Livingood has made that clear to the chief. [There] was perhaps a misunderstanding on that.”

Following meetings with House and Senate leadership last week, Gainer added that issues regarding the chain of command have been clarified. When asked who is the final authority for emergency communications, the chief said, “I am now.”

House staffers located in Cannon complained that during the search for the apparent gunman — who police had initially described as a white male with a .38 caliber gun — Capitol Police gave conflicting information, first ordering them to stay inside their offices and then herding them into the building’s Rotunda before sending them back to their offices.

Police did not order a mass evacuation of the building, Ney said, because it would have likely prevented them from locating any suspects. “You have to err on the site of caution,” he said.

Instead, the Containment Emergency Response Team — the Capitol Police’s version of a SWAT team — conducted floor-by-floor sweeps of offices while other officers searched staffers before allowing them to leave the building.

But Capitol Police located the two female suspects only after the pair realized their role in the incident and the Illinois lawmaker contacted the law enforcement agency.

“The Capitol Police need to find a way to balance the need for us to have information regarding these types of incidents with their desires not to panic the Capitol Hill community,” House Administration ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter given to House Democrats on Thursday.

One House aide suggested the poor performance of Congressional officials was in stark contrast to the Supreme Court, where officials quickly sent out an e-mail advising employees of the incident.

A spokeswoman for the court confirmed that staff there received an e-mail notification around 1:30 p.m. informing them of the situation in Cannon. Additional e-mails were sent by the Marshall of the Court, who oversees that body’s law enforcement agency, as new information became available.

In the foreseeable future, Capitol Police will focus on improving “internal operational functions,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel said.

The department planned to hold a meeting of sergeants and other high-ranking officers over the weekend “to review what we do and get input from people in the field,” the spokeswoman said. Discussion could focus on tactical issues ranging from the operation of X-ray machines to the placement of officers monitoring entranceways.

At a Thursday press conference, Gainer said screening operations, including the X-ray machines, would be placed under review.

“I’ve already talked to technicians about slowing the belts down,” he said.

And, according to a Senate Sergeant-at-Arms e-mail sent to Hill offices Friday, the police department also planned to review its security procedures and calibrate screening equipment during the weekend.

The Thursday incident began when a police officer, distracted by another individual, failed to notice the image of a gun on the X-ray machine until after the suspects had left the area.

One source with intimate knowledge of the incident, who requested anonymity, was critical of whether improvements to X-ray machines would have prevented the incident.

“At least a full minute went by before [the officer] looked up at the screen,” the source said. “It doesn’t matter how slow or how fast the conveyor belt is if you don’t look at the screen.”

Capitol Police officials could not confirm how much time elapsed before an officer noticed the image of the gun.

In addition to the House Administration Committee’s planned review, the Capitol Police Board will also investigate the department’s actions.

“We support the chief and the department,” read a statement issued by the board. “The Police Board is conducting a comprehensive review of all aspects of the incident. Upon completion the board will make the decision on appropriate actions to be taken.”

In the meantime, Larson, the House Administration ranking member, suggested the department may need to institute “airport type” lockdowns on suspicious items when screening visitors to the Capitol’s buildings.

“We will also be looking into the need to implement some rules regarding jokes and toy guns the way airports have,” Larson wrote.

It is illegal to bring toy weapons into the Capitol if the users make threats or use the items for ill intent.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.