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On the fence: Minnesota Capitol likely to beef up security with permanent enclosure

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, who chairs the state’s Capital Security Advisory Committee, said the state must balance building security and access for the public.

Security at the Minnesota State Capitol was tight on January 19, the day before the Biden Inauguration.
Security at the Minnesota State Capitol was tight on January 19, the day before the Biden Inauguration.

That temporary fence around the Minnesota Capitol building is likely to become permanent.

A state advisory committee on Capitol security heard a list of proposals last week to beef up security, among them was an idea to replace the chain-link fence that has surrounded the domed building with a permanent enclosure. Other ideas included increased staffing for state troopers and security guards at the building, body cameras for those troopers, metal detectors and an employee to monitor and analyze social media traffic related to the building. 

“Suffice it to say that that the fence has been a benefit when we talk about protecting the capitol building itself from people that wish to do harm to that building, whether graffiti, throwing objects, breaking things or climbing on structures,” State Patrol Chief Matt Langer told the Advisory Commission on Capital Area Security. 

Langer’s comments follow Gov. Tim Walz informing legislative leaders earlier this month that he will be asking for security improvements in his 2021 supplemental budget. “Making improvements to ensure safety on our Capitol Complex is of paramount importance,” Walz said in Jan. 14 letter [PDF]. “I  ask the legislature to take swift action to support this funding and pass these measures early in the session, as opposed to waiting until the end of session.” 

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The Capitol is currently open only to legislators, legislative staff and news media. But when it opens again to the public, there are no gates or checkpoints to monitor or control who enters the building. “I think everyone agrees that the current fence around the capitol, functional as it might be, is not physically attractive and there are a variety of opinions about that fence in regards to ingress and egress,” Langer said. 

The fence was installed to respond to threats to the building that followed the death of George Floyd in May. It has remained at the request of the Minnesota State Patrol and the state Department of Administration and was credited with helping secure the Capitol during the Jan. 6 protests over the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Both of those periods of unrest have convinced Gov. Tim Walz that there must be better security around public buildings, especially symbolic places like the 115-year-old Capitol, which underwent extensive renovation and remodeling in 2014 and 2015. Any permanent fencing would likely have gates that could be left open under normal circumstances but be closed in emergencies, and proposals for metal detectors and an increased presence of troopers are meant to help reopen the building.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
“This is not a short-term goal,” Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, who chairs the Capital Security Advisory Committee, said of overall Capitol security. “I have no illusions that any quick fix or half-hearted attempts to secure the Capitol complex will resolve any of the underlying security problems that we face.”

Flanagan said the state must balance security and access for the public. She also said there needs to be a discussion about guns in the capitol building itself and on the Capitol complex. Currently, concealed handguns with permits are allowed inside, but not rifles and other long guns. Both are permitted outside.

And while Flanagan said no options have been endorsed by Walz or her, they are being formulated by commissioners appointed by Walz. Any proposals would have to be approved by the Legislature, but Flanagan said [PDF] she will convene additional meetings of the advisory committee to hear ideas and consider comments from the public and full-time users of the buildings.

The advisory committee is made up of Flanagan, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, two members of the state Senate and two members of the state House. Currently, those members are Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove; Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis: Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia; and Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
State Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told the advisory committee that there have been specific threats against the building, including a May 30 threat to burn it down. Social media traffic during the lead up to the inauguration of President Biden also detailed a plan to stash firearms and explosives nearby for an assault.

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But he said the fence also prevented other damage, including graffiti and broken windows, which happened before the temporary fence was installed in the spring. The statute of Christopher Columbus that was toppled by protestors in mid-June is outside the fencing.

In 2020, the state recorded 81 damage to property cases, and since June, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been tracking potential threats. “We have tracked 88 events that at least had some overtones of threats or violence connected to them,” Harrington said.