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Former Top Cop Suggests Capitol Complex Is Too Open (Audio)

Congress’ former top cop thinks there should be major changes to security at the 276-acre Capitol complex, saying its open and accessible campus is “much to my chagrin.”  

Terrance W. Gainer said in an interview he would add gates around the Capitol perimeter and consider re-routing traffic around campus. Gainer made his comments as a federal judge ordered Omar Gonzalez to undergo a mental health evaluation within the next 30 days to determine whether he is competent to stand trial on federal and local charges of infiltrating the White House on Sept. 19. The case is causing major repercussions  for the Secret Service.  

It also prompted Gainer, the former Senate sergeant-at-arms who also served four years as the chief of the Capitol Police, to frankly address the challenges for guarding the complex against intrusions.  

“One of the challenges the chief has, or the director of the Secret Service, is keeping everybody sharp all the time,” Gainer told CQ Roll Call. “Up on Capitol Hill we have, you know, 25,000 employees and 3 million visitors so it is very open, and keeping the officers alert and active, you know, is an important challenge.”  

Gainer said keeping Independence and Constitution avenues open to traffic on either side of the Capitol is an “attractive nuisance” that creates a challenge for law enforcement. He thinks both streets should be re-routed, and also suggested a “tasteful fence” around the Capitol grounds.  

Gainer suggests a fence around the Capitol, similar to the barricades at the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Gainer suggests a fence around the Capitol, similar to the barricades at the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“People could enter on the four corners, and then you’d have free roaming area of the Capitol and it actually would open it up to more people,” Gainer said, “but those are long-term investments people would have to make.” He suggested Congress look to George Washington University, Georgetown University or the White House as examples of safe perimeters.  

“The only people that have left their campus open is the Capitol,” Gainer continued. “Now, I get people wanting to be open, but people have to somehow understand there are constant threats and if the only way to mitigate the threat is have an officer chase after the bad guy — you’re going to end up having problems.”  

Improvised explosive devices in a private vehicle or a taxicab are both threats, he said, despite the efforts that have been made to fortify the buildings and windows. Gainer suggested reconsidering the balance between security and people’s access to the officials they elect to represent them.  

Gainer’s successor, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Drew Willison, declined to comment on takeaways for Capitol Hill from the Sept. 19 breach. He referred questions on campus access to House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving, who currently serves as chairman of the Capitol Police Board, a panel with policy oversight over the force.  

Irving also declined to speak to CQ Roll Call about campus access at this time, or comment on Gainer’s recommendation. Prior to being sworn into office on Jan. 17, 2012, Irving served as a special agent for the Secret Service. He was assistant director of the agency from from 2001 to 2008.  

Officials in the District of Columbia, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, have criticized barriers erected around the White House following the breach. They object to changes that might block access to the public landmark or incursions that might make it harder to navigate the city.  

Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, some in D.C. objected when the Secret Service attempted to close the entire area around the White House to public access, including E Street to the South of the White House. The street was reopened for a time, but closed after 9/11.  

Correction, 10:15 p.m.: A previous version of this story misquoted Gainer’s figures for the amount of employees and visitors on Capitol Hill.  

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