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Statehouse security under scrutiny
Breach spawns second-guessing of '02 removal of metal detectors
July 17, 2007

By Nick Martin
Denver Post Staff Writer

In 2002, people complained about having to enter Colorado's Capitol through metal detectors installed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, saying the machines limited access to state government.

So legislators removed the extra layer of security.

Publication info
This story originally ran July 17, 2007 in the Denver Post. To view photos, a timeline and other things published with the story, go to www.denverpost.com.

That move was instantly called into question Monday after a gunman made his way toward the office of Gov. Bill Ritter before he was shot and killed by a state trooper.

Former state Rep. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, voted to keep the detectors in place in 2002.

"I would say it would be very difficult to criticize people who made those decisions," he said "Though, in hindsight, it looks like they (the decisions) were poor."

But while Ritter said ecurity at the Capitol will now be reviewed, some of those involved in the 2002 decision cautioned against leaping to judgments about the removal of the metal detectors.

Former House Speaker Doug Dean, R-Colorado Springs, who voted to do away with the detectors in July of that year, defended the decision.

"You want the public to have access," he said. "You don't want them to feel that they are going into a fortress."

State officials are now talking about reviewing security, which may include reinstalling the detectors.

They are now used only for major events, such as the governor's State of the State address.

Colorado is among 30 states that don't use metal detectors at their capitols, said Kae Warnock, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Like Colorado, she said, many states raised their guard after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Then, just as quickly, some relaxed.

"State capitols are referred to as the 'People's House,'" Warnock said.

Many legislators feel strongly that the building should be open for anyone who wants to walk off the street and participate.

"They want to make sure the people are always part of the process," Warnock said.

Even though other government buildings -- from courthouses to city halls -- have higher security, state capitols remain almost free of it, she said.

Responsibility to protect

Capitol Building Advisory Committee Chairman Hugh Fowler, a former lawmaker, said he believes opening a government building to the public carries with it some responsibility.

"We have thousands of school kids and thousands of tourists in the building, and they must be protected," Fowler said. "If we invite people in to see our beautiful building, we have a responsibility to protect them."

In Colorado, the decision to remove the metal detectors was made by a 3-2 vote of a joint legislative committee that met less than nine months after the attacks.

The committee met a few days after State Patrol Capt. Ron Woods, who was then head of Capitol security, told another group of legislators that they could remove the machines.

Tightened surveillance, fewer visitors to the Capitol and enough troopers posted at various parts of the building would maintain security, he said at the time.

Other attacks happened with detectors in place.

Warnock pointed to a shooting at the U.S. Capitol in 1998 in which a gunman killed two police officers before he even passed through its metal detectors.

A similar incident in 2004 at the Illinois Capitol prompted that state to install metal detectors.

Now Illinois, along with states such as Utah, Florida and California, is one of 20 that have the detectors full time, Warnock said.

Grossman said that public service is sometimes dangerous, and security is important.

"It's scary, you know," he said. "I think people tend to forget the negative sides of public service, and one of them is you open yourself up not only to criticism, but also to threats."

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