While the Capitol Police Board continues to review its screening policies following the shooting death of a New York City councilman last week, House and Senate officials have begun reinforcing the on-the-book regulations by placing the onus on Members and staff.
“Maybe it had gotten a little lax, but I think that this incident woke us up once again, and Senators and their guests are going to be going through the detector devices,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said.
A recent letter by House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood addressing security policies cited the July 23 incident in New York’s City Hall, where Councilman James Davis (D) of Brooklyn was allegedly shot by Othniel Askew.
Because he was accompanied by Davis, Askew was able to avoid screening and enter the building with a gun. City councilmembers are allowed to bypass security checkpoints in City Hall, and police often allow councilmembers’ guests to skip magnetometer screenings as well. Members of Congress and their guests are often treated in a similar way on the Capitol grounds.
The event prompted both Livingood and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms Bill Pickle to issue notices late last week urging Members and their staffs to follow strict screening policies when entering the Capitol and its office buildings.
“All persons — including those escorted by a Member of Congress — must undergo the security screening process,” Livingood wrote. “Your cooperation and assistance in enforcing this policy are essential, and greatly appreciated. This policy makes the Capitol and the office buildings a safer place for all who work and visit here.”
Similarly, Pickle, who also referenced vehicle screening and mail and package processing procedures, wrote: “Screening of staff and visitors is a key element of our overall security program. … Your active participation in these necessary security procedures is important to maintaining a safe and secure environment.”
Although both visitors and Congressional staff are required to pass through magnetometers and are subject to hand-searches or X-ray screening of personal belongings in the Capitol, Members are allowed to eschew security checkpoints and often escort their guests around screening.
Assistant Capitol Police Chief Robert Howe acknowledged in a statement Thursday that regulations require the screening of Members’ guests, but noted that if a Member insists, exceptions are usually made.
Police officers on duty in the Senate side of the Capitol last week insisted they are “vigilant” about visitor screening, often explaining the necessity to Members, but another officer stationed in the Longworth House Office Building reported that Members take advantage of the policy about “50-50,” often depending on the number of guests they are escorting.
In an interview Tuesday, Pickle suggested it is more likely that Senators are escorting their staffs, rather than constituents, around security.
Although police officers are reminded to instruct Members that all guests must pass security, Pickle said, “The officer makes a judgment call” when it comes to staff.
A representative for the House Sergeant-at-Arms, who noted the screening policy has been in effect for more than three years, said many Members are not aware their guests could sidestep security procedures.
“Most Members are surprised they could even do that,” the representative said.
In the meantime, the Capitol Police Board — composed of Pickle, Livingood, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman and Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer — is continuing a review of its screening policies, which began prior to the New York incident.
Pickle declined to discuss specific details, citing security risks, but said his office is “gradually making changes.”
“Can we do a better job? Sure. We’re always evaluating how to do a better job,” he said.
One possibility, though unlikely, is that the Police Board could require everyone, including Members, to pass through screening, the House Sergeant-at-Arms aide said. “They’re looking at everything in the review.”
At least one Member, Lott, seems supportive of that proposal.
“We ought to all go through the metal detection device, including the Senators,” Lott said.
The Senate began screening its own staffers in 1990, and the House Sergeant-at-Arms implemented similar requirements two years later.