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In Wake of Navy Yard Shooting, Senate Panel Questions Screening Procedures

Three months after the day 12 people were gunned down in Washington’s Navy Yard, a Senate panel questioned whether screening is up to par at federal facilities and if privately contracted guards are adequately trained for active shooter situations.

“In the aftermath, it’s only natural that we wonder if all people entering a federal facility, even employees, should be screened in some way,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said at Tuesday’s hearing. “Should we, to borrow an often-used phrase from Ronald Reagan, ‘trust, but verify’?”

Current Department of Defense policy does not require people to walk through a metal detection device, but it does allow for random screening of individuals, explained Stephen Lewis a deputy director with the DOD speaking on behalf of Michael Vickers, the under secretary for intelligence.

“The drawback to screening every employee coming through is the negative impact on mission accomplishment,” Lewis said. Some facilities have “10,000 employees coming through often in roughly the same window, and, you know, screening every employee would be disruptive to getting the work done,” he said, noting the agency has to add cost into the equation.

L. Eric Patterson, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, said his agency puts a lot of trust in background investigations, but he noted that at some facilities, such as the Department of Transportation, everyone who enters is screened. The FPS protects nearly 9,600 federal facilities under the control and custody of the General Services Administration.

“To date, we have not had a problem in most of our facilities, we haven’t had a problem with our employees or with the folks who have been screened,” Patterson said. If the FPS decided to screen everyone, he said, they would have to work with the GSA to organize traffic flow.

“At 8 … in the morning when you have hundreds of people entering a building, and they are accustomed to moving through and showing a badge based upon a security clearance, it could create somewhat of a challenge,” Patterson said. “It could create a challenge.”

Senators pressed the witnesses to respond to a September Government Accountability Office report, pointing out that some of the 13,500 guards contracted through the FPS do not have training on how to respond to active shooter situations.

According to Mark L. Goldstein, the director of the GAO’s Physical Infrastructure Issues unit, contracted guards receive 120 hours of training, with only two hours devoted to special events “and only a fraction of that two hours actually covers active-shooter training.”

Patterson said private security officers are trained to protect people, warn them about coming into harm’s way and evacuate in a timely manner, but sworn law enforcement officers are the ones responsible for tracking down and incapacitating a shooter.

“If in fact they are approached or come in contact with a shooter, they are trained to engage,” he said. “What they’re not trained in is to go find the shooter and then take action.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the committee’s ranking member, pressed for more details on the training and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., drew on her experience as North Dakota’s attorney general to challenge the FPS.

“I chaired a task force when I was attorney general on school safety. We made everyone in the building have training,” Heitkamp said. “I mean, our recommendation, which was carried out by very many schools across this country, is that we train on what happens if there’s an active shooter.”

Stephen D. Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies, the nation’s largest contract security trade group, said during his testimony that the FPS was moving to increase training, as recommended by the GAO.

Senators expressed concern that there is not enough oversight and enforcement to make sure the GAO’s recommendations are implemented, and that security officials are not moving with enough urgency.

Heitkamp said she was troubled by a lack of “creative thinking on how we can use the resources we have more effectively to protect folks.”

She called the Sept. 16 Navy Yard shooting a “great tragedy” which many are still learning to cope with, and suggested “that maybe the best way we can deal with this tragedy is assure people we’ve learned the lessons.”

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