Tennessee's General Assembly returns to tighter security

2:37 PM, Jan 8, 2013   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean

The doors of the Tennessee Capitol "shall be kept open," reads the state's constitution.

But to get through those doors when lawmakers gather today to begin the 108th General Assembly, Tennesseans will have to clear a couple of new hurdles.

State officials are rolling out new security measures at the Capitol this year, including machines that can scan identification cards, more cameras and permanent guard stations at each public entrance. Similar measures are being implemented at adjoining Legislative Plaza, where lawmakers have their committee meetings.

Tighter security comes as state and national lawmakers prepare to debate the place of firearms in workplaces and schools. It also comes as the nation reacts to last year's shootings in Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado.

But state officials deny there is a direct connection.

"It wasn't a reaction to any one particular incident," said state Comptroller Justin Wilson, a member of the State Building Commission, which signed off on the improvements.

"There's just a need for greater security."

The improvements are part of a larger renovation of the Capitol. Completed in December, the $15.7 million project mainly restored the Civil War-era building's interior and upgraded the heating and cooling system. As planning for the project got under way, the Department of Safety and the Department of General Services recommended beefing up security.

The State Building Commission, most of whose members have offices in the Capitol, signed off on the improvements in late 2011. The decision came before the latest round of shootings, but it took place months after the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a political rally in Arizona. Occupy Nashville protesters were camped outside at the time.

The security plans also were reviewed by a task force of state lawmakers.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said the upgrades will make legislators and visitors safer without curbing access to the Capitol.

"They chose to do the bare minimum of security enhancements that were needed," she said.

The Department of General Services also said the upgrades were not meant to be intrusive.

"The general public should not notice any changes, nor will they be required to provide any information other than a photo ID, which was required prior to the renovation," said Kelly Smith, a department spokeswoman.

Cameras added

State officials have been reluctant to discuss details of the improvements, but many are obvious to anyone who has visited the Capitol since it reopened last month.

Marble guard stations have replaced metal desks at public entrances that will be equipped with machines that scan IDs and retain an electronic copy. Visitors previously were asked only to present a photo ID.

More cameras also have been installed, their black domes now dotting the ceilings throughout the Capitol. Radio-frequency identification readers have been placed at entrances frequently used by staff and lobbyists.

The enhancements represent the first major upgrades to security at the Capitol since metal detectors were installed in October 2001. Those improvements came weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and only a few months after protesters opposed to a state income tax thronged the Capitol.

Lawmakers were only beginning to familiarize themselves with the new equipment as they arrived Monday, a day before the legislature was to begin.

House Republican Caucus chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said he had not been aware of the project.

"I've been here 11 years, and only once did I think a guy could have escalated into a problem," he said. "But in this period of time after what happened in Connecticut and after the theater shooting in Colorado, I think it's a good thing."

State Rep. Lois DeBerry, the former House speaker pro tempore and one of the legislature's longest-serving members, was less supportive.

"I don't understand the need for it because we haven't had any major problems," the Memphis Democrat said. "I guess it's a sign of the times. ... I just hope that whatever it costs is worth it."

Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or csisk@tennessean.com.

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