Capitol police talk of weak security

Sunday, November 2, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The chief of the Capitol Hill police says his security personnel will take cues from airport security screeners and sacrifice speed to slower passage through X-ray machine posts.

Lines to enter the Capitol complex will likely move more slowly as police try to avoid repetition of a scare over a toy gun that made it through security and into a House office building.

In an interview published Saturday in The Washington Post, chief Terrance Gainer acknowledged the incident exposed serious security gaps and communication failures in his police force and he vowed protection would be improved.

He said more than 200 of his supervisors would attend a weekend work session to analyze what went wrong when a Halloween prop, a fast X-ray machine belt and a distracted officer combined Thursday to shut down the House of Representatives.

"There were some command failures, no doubt," Gainer told the Post. "We weren't nearly as sharp as we could have been, but we will be much better. We're correcting that."

Two House staffers caused an alarm by bringing a toy gun in a package through a Cannon House Office Building X-ray machine. The two women picked up the package and left before an officer, distracted by a question from an onlooker, recognized the apparent firearm inside. By that time, the women had disappeared.

Concerned about a security breach, police searched the building until Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., contacted them and said two of his aides were the people being sought. No charges were filed.

All the security equipment involved worked during Thursday's incident, including security cameras and X-ray machines, Gainer said. The firearm's silhouette clearly was visible on the X-ray machine, but the officer was distracted, he said.

Members of the police force will be tested on their ability to find weapons with the X-ray machines, Gainer said.

The incident brought memories of a lethal incident on July 24, 1998, when a man with a history of mental illness rushed into the Capitol and shot dead two security guards. The accused shooter, Russell E. Weston Jr., is awaiting trial at a Washington mental hospital.

Since that incident and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers have spent millions of dollars augmenting Capitol security. For example, since Sept. 11, money has been authorized for the Capitol Police force to fill an additional 512 positions, a 37 percent increase in less than two years, House officials said.

Some House members complained that an alert system designed to warn them of an emergency was not as quick as news media reports about Thursday's incident.

"How come my staff and I heard about the two alleged gunmen on television before the Capitol Police informed us?" said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

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