Maine set to beef up State House security

Lawmakers agree to $546,000 plan

By Glenn Adams
Associated Press / July 18, 2011

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AUGUSTA, Maine - The State House, long known for its wide-open doors and free access, will soon have a different look and feel when visitors enter.

The state’s most public building will soon have two walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines at the main entrance, something that may come as a surprise to Mainers who spend a lot of time there, but not so much to visitors from other states where heightened security has been in place for some time.

Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin said Maine will start screening people entering the domed building as early as September, when funding for upgraded security becomes available. The system will be tweaked before it is fully implemented in January when the Legislature returns for its 2012 session.

For now, Gauvin is checking with other states that have implemented tighter security, especially in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks raised the nation’s awareness of potential public safety threats.

In doing so, he will try to strike a balance between public access and public safety.

“We’re going to make it as minimally intrusive as possible,’’ Gauvin said. He is trying to keep a focus on what the potential threats are in the State House, which are different from what would be seen in an airport or courthouse.

The Legislature appropriated $546,000 to beef up security. While sporadic incidents have occurred in recent years, few if any crossed the line where public safety was compromised.

This spring, a judge ordered Representative Frederick Wintle, Republican from Garland, to stay away from the State House as part of his bail conditions after the legislator was arrested on charges of pulling a gun in a parking lot at a Waterville doughnut shop. Before that, other lawmakers had said they were concerned about Wintle’s erratic behavior in the State House.

But those events happened long after officials started thinking about improving security in the State House area. Gauvin said at least three separate studies in the past few years have concluded that Capitol Police should be screening.

However, movement has been slow in a state where public money is tight, people prize their right to bear arms, and the gun ownership rate is high. Just this spring, a bill was introduced that sought to allow guns in the State House, but it was withdrawn by its sponsor.

“It’s always been a sticky issue with the public, balancing free access with people feeling safe,’’ said Gauvin.

The move to tighter security is part of a national trend, and he is studying how other state capitols implement their systems.

Some states, including Kansas, upgraded capitol security with metal detectors after US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six others were killed in Tucson in January. The shootings also prompted several other states, including Maine, to review their capitol security protocols.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said that by February, 26 states were requiring visitors to their legislative buildings to pass through metal detectors. Most other capitols had metal detectors on hand in case of security concerns.

In Maine, Capitol police are working out how the new screening will be implemented. Still undecided is who will be subject to screening, Gauvin said.

Any final security policy, the chief said, would have to be approved by legislative leaders.