Police Revive Plan to Fence In Capitol

Posted March 31, 2004 at 6:30pm

Asserting the Capitol campus remains “a tempting target for terrorists,” the Capitol Police Board is once again discussing construction of a perimeter fence to enclose the grounds.

In a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch hearing Wednesday, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer divulged the most recent incarnation of the fence proposal, which has been raised several times during in the past two decades.

“This latest recommendation goes a step further and recommends a fence around all the office buildings,” Gainer said, in presenting his fiscal 2005 budget request.

The chief quoted a General Accounting Office report, issued in February but not released to the public, which stated: “An aesthetically pleasing perimeter security fence could be constructed around the Capitol Building grounds. This would markedly increase security within and around the Capitol Building.”

But Senate Appropriations raised concerns over a fence, citing the need to weigh security measures against maintaining a publicly accessible building.

“Most Americans would rebel at the thought of the Capitol being fenced in,” asserted Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who chairs the legislative branch subcommittee. Any new safety measures need to strike “a balance between security and looking like we’re under siege,” he added.

The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), questioned whether a new fence would render unnecessary the steel bollards which now ring the campus.

In response, Gainer said the fence would work in conjunction with the current perimeter security program — which is designed primarily to prevent vehicles, including possible truck or car bombs from entering the grounds — by reducing the possibility of suicide-bombers gaining access to the Capitol.

“It is our concern that small types of explosives … are still a real danger,” Gainer said.

Although the issue is under discussion, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman, a member of the Police Board, said no funds for a fence are in his agency’s fiscal 2005 budget proposal. The Capitol Police request also does not include funds for such a project.

The police proposal includes $5.5 million to adjust officers’ pay scale, as well as $12.2 million for cost-of-living adjustments and health benefit increases for civilian employees.

The department is also seeking $8.1 million to replace thousands of protective masks located throughout the Capitol complex.

Although the current supply of 45,000 escape hoods — designed to provide breathable air in the event of a chemical or biological attack — have a four-year shelf life, Gainer asserted the units are “difficult to put on and impossible to communicate” in when users are wearing the devices.

Durbin criticized the need to replace the escape hoods shortly after spending $2.5 million to obtain the protective gear. “It seems like a dramatic reversal in a short period,” he said.

The chief defended the earlier purchase, however, stating: “That was the product that was available at the time.”

Another significant increase involves a $3.1 million request related to the 2005 presidential inauguration.

As he has done at earlier legislative branch hearings this cycle, Campbell asked whether the department could make additional reductions to its budget in the face of a possible spending freeze. Echoing the responses of other agencies, Gainer noted that a reduction in employees would be the most likely solution.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle also presented his agency’s fiscal 2005 budget request at the hearing.

His office is seeking nearly $187 million, an increase of 3 percent over the current fiscal year.

The funds will be used to complete security upgrades to Senators’ state offices, as well as for additional communication services, mail and package screening, and computer network security.