Updated, 3:23 p.m. | CQ Roll Call’s publication Friday of a jarring photo of an unattended handgun reportedly found in a Capitol Visitor Center bathroom in January had members of Congress questioning the preparedness of the police who protect the Hill — and whether authorities are concealing lapses in safety.
“I was unaware of these instances until this morning,” said House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas. “The Capitol Hill Police are awesome people who need to retrain everyone that carries a gun. It does not surprise me that mistakes can be made, what would surprise me is if we did not retrain every single person with better procedures.” CQ Roll Call reported Friday three instances since January in which workers or, in one case, a child, have found unattended Capitol Police handguns — two left behind in bathrooms.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said Congress should investigate how cops could leave their guns unattended. He also suggested Congress take another look at the 2004 appropriations rider that shielded Capitol Police from having to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests that might jeopardize security.
“This information absolutely ought to come out,” the New York congressman told CQ Roll Call. “Certain things probably out not to be subject to FOIA, but I don’t think you should can take an entire agency and say they’re not subject to FOIA.”
Nadler said the post-9/11 language may be part of the panic and overreaction that comes after a major tragedy. “This shows it’s time to look into that again, and it’s time to look into the question of what are the regulations with respect to how to handle firearms and what’s the enforcement,” he said.
House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., and ranking member Rep. Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., will be looking for a full briefing on “the incidents, how they happened, what corrective action has been taken, and how we hopefully do not have similar instances in the future,” they said in a joint statement, calling the incidents “unacceptable.”
The low-profile Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over Capitol Police and day-to-day operations as mundane as office space and parking, has not been very aggressive in publicly delving into campus security matters. Its leaders refer to private briefings from Chief Kim C. Dine and House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving, but those officials have not testified to the committee since Miller took over as chairman in 2012, according to public records.
It’s been an unsettling and rough few weeks for Capitol Police, with a suicide on the West Front, a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol lawn and members of Congress looking to trim the force’s budget, all in a month that started with Dine submitting his resignation letter. Many rank-and-file officers thought the chief, on the job for about 26 months, was gone. Instead, the department got a new No. 2.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee lawmakers recently put Dine and Irving on the hot seat, asking tough questions about securing airspace over the Capitol during an April 29 hearing . Reacting Friday to the news of another major security issue under Dine’s watch, ranking member Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., signaled major concern.
“Just as we’ve looked at the [Drug Enforcement Administration] and just as we’ve looked at the Secret Service, again we have to put these folks under a high-powered microscope,” Cummings said, calling it “a wake up call.”
On FOIA exemptions, Cummings said there should be “a balance” between security and giving the press an opportunity to get the word out to readers and listeners. “Lots of times what we have to do is we have to go into classified mode. But I think as long as we’re not threatening opening the door for people to do negative things by giving out information, then I think the public should know.”
Sessions suggested there should be internal reporting to make members aware “on a proprietary need-to-know basis.”
The go-to guy on police issues for the Administration Committee, former sheriff Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., said he wanted to learn more about how severely the officers involved were disciplined. He questioned the agency’s policy of not routinely discussing internal personnel matters, in order to maintain its integrity.
“That’s really nice to maintain the integrity of the department, but it’s more than that,” Nugent said. “The public has a right to know and members of Congress certainly have a right to know if there [are] huge lapses in their security.” He suggested looking at better technology, such as lockboxes, to be taken into the bathroom.
“Is it a training issue on handgun retention?” Nugent asked rhetorically. “I mean that’s a big deal and obviously it’s pretty lax. That’s pretty embarrassing. That’s a huge supervisory issue. If I was the chief, I would be really — the first one would upset me, the second and third one would put me over the top. There’s no excuse for it.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., may use Congress’ power of the purse to police the Capitol Police.
“In my role as Ranking Member of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, I will be speaking to Chief Dine and the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms to ensure that policies are in place to ensure that, while recognizing that mistakes occur in any large agency, the review and disciplinary processes of these, and all USCP incidents, is thorough, timely, and designed to reduce their likelihood,” She said in an email statement to CQ Roll Call.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.
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