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Bonding bill request speaks to security vulnerabilities at Minnesota Capitol

The spirit of the Minnesota Capitol is to be open, but the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “was a wake-up call,” says Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who chairs an advisory committee looking at security issues at the complex. 

On May 31, 2020, a chain-link fence was placed around the Minnesota Capitol to protect it from those who might cause harm to the building and the people who work inside.
On May 31, 2020, a chain-link fence was placed around the Minnesota Capitol to protect it from those who might cause harm to the building and the people who work inside.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Security on and around the Minnesota state Capitol campus has been an issue for a decade or more. It just hasn’t been a very well-known issue.

Outside of some people in the departments of public safety and administration, a pair of advisory committees and the employees who work inside the buildings, upgrading locks and cameras and access points and physical barriers has not been a top-of-mind issue, not even for state lawmakers.

That changed on May 31, 2020, when a chain-link fence was placed around the Capitol to protect it from those who might cause harm to the building and the people who work inside. Since then, security has been as obvious as the fence itself, access to the Capitol controlled — and limited.

Monday, Gov. Tim Walz released his 2021 request for public infrastructure spending, known as the bonding bill, that included $43 million in security upgrades for the 16 buildings and 25 parking facilities that make up the 140-acre Capitol campus in St. Paul. Some of that money — $33 million — is for work previously designed but not fully funded; Some — $10 million —  is for work that hasn’t yet been designed but will be the subject of an update to a 2017 consultant’s report.

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The difference between then and now, said Chris Guevin, the director of facilities management for the state Department of Administration, is the nature of the threats against government buildings. As outlined in an initial study in 2012 and contained in a recommendation by the architecture firm Miller Dunwiddie in 2017, the threats back then were lone gunmen, terror attacks and what are termed “opportunistic threats.” 

To address those concerns, bollards — short, thick posts — were installed to block vehicles from getting close to some buildings, and windows were reinforced to protect against the concussion of a bomb blast. “When there’s a vehicle in front of a building and a blast goes off, that’s what usually kills people inside,” Guevin said. 

The threats have changed, however, and the buildings aren’t well guarded against large crowds intent on getting in and doing damage, Guevin said. “Because so much time has passed since the initial study was, we felt we needed to take another look and deal with the newest threats,” he said. “A lot of what’s being put in isn’t going to stop a mob. It won’t stop a lot of what we’re seeing today.”

‘Kicking the can down the road’ on Capitol security

A bollard won’t stop a mob, but a fence might. An Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security — a panel of four legislators representing the four largest caucuses of the House and Senate along with the chief justice of the Supreme Court and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who serves as chair — has talked about making fencing permanent, based on a list of suggestions from State Patrol Chief Matt Langer. That list also included more state troopers at the capitol, more security guards and perhaps metal detectors, which are already present at the Minnesota Judicial Center. 

State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer
State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer
But no decision has been made on permanent fencing, and Guerin said he doesn’t think it will be made until later in the year when the updated analysis is completed. The Department of Administration is asking for funding now, however, so that the money can be spent once the recommendations are completed.

On Tuesday, Walz released his capital projects list but left open what the security upgrades might entail. He also said he will defer to the advisory committee’s recommendations.

According to that committee’s 2020 annual report, the previously unfunded work was identified by Miller Dunwiddie, which called for “the installation of bollards, blast protection, infrastructure security screen walls, door access controls, emergency call stations, security kiosks, locking devices, and traffic and crowd control devices.”

“I took their list and submitted it,” Walz said Monday. “This is not reactive just to last May and June, it’s not reactive to the threats to the state capital, the federal capital on January 6th. It has been in the works for quite some time.” 

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The purpose, Walz said, is “not to make a fortress out of the capital but to make it safe for visitors and those that are working there … but I think we realistically have to look at the times we’re living in, we have to take the security experts advice on this …” 

Flanagan said that the committee she chairs has not made recommendations on fencing and won’t until later in the year. “It isn’t about keeping people out, it’s about keeping people safe,” she said. 

The spirit of the Capitol is to be open, for everything from residents advocating on issues to grade school children on field trips. But she said the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “was a wake-up call.”

A fortified gate installed near the Minnesota Capitol building.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A fortified gate installed near the Minnesota Capitol building.
The committee is looking at what other states have done and is listening to the law enforcement agencies charged with protecting government buildings and the people who work there and take part in government there.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
Flanagan said one issue is that the Legislature has not fully funded past requests of the administration and the advisory committee. “We’ve been kicking the can down the road,” she said. 

The Legislature did approve $10 million in 2018 bond proceeds to be spent on security. But the committee’s annual report notes that the money is just 35 percent of what was requested, leaving $27.8 million unfunded. “The absence of full funding for the security upgrades over the past 8 years leaves over half of the Capitol Complex population and building square footage without programmed physical security improvements,” it says.

Permanent fence ‘not off the table’

The fence is the most-obvious security installation — and the most controversial. And while the advisory committee will make a recommendation, the decision will be up to Walz and the Legislature through the normal budgeting process. 

“This is always a balancing act, because this is the people’s house and I recognize very clearly that a fence around the people’s house is an issue of how do you start to make sure that it’s welcoming people, welcoming people in,” Walz said.

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The fence was put up shortly after protests of the death of George Floyd, when Department of Public Safety officials said they had picked up credible threats against the building. The fence was also cited by Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington as a valuable tool when the building was the venue for so-called Stop The Steal protests triggered by President Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election.

Guevin said a decision on the fence is months in the future. “I don’t think fencing is off the table but it’s not known yet. Or whether it’s partial fencing,” he said. “There is nothing firm. There are people who like fencing and want it and there are people who hate it and don’t.”

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
That discussion will come after a consultant’s report is in hand. “You could put up some nice-looking fencing around parts of the building but leave the main south lawn open,” he continued. “There’s any number of things you could do to control crowds or at least limit where they can go. It’s wide-open now, it’s almost impossible to try to manage protests, rallies, if they start to get out of control.”

The advisory committee’s report does not envision a permanent fence, but it also does not see the temporary fence coming down soon.

“The recent increase in civil unrest in the Twin Cities and across our Nation warranted its placement to protect the $695 million Capitol Building and its inhabitants from acts of vandalism that may accompany rallies, protests, and counter-protests,” the report states. “The fence provides the standoff distance necessary to protect the building from graffiti, rocks, bricks, paint, incendiary devices or other contraband brought to the Complex by protestors that could cause severe or irreparable damage to the building or harm its inhabitants.

“The goal is to remove the fence as soon as possible when the civil unrest subsides,” the report states. “But the current and evolving political and civil events make it unclear as to when this will occur. Until the political and social climate improve to a level where (the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Administration and the advisory committee) believe that the threat to the building and its inhabitants are low enough to effectively manage, the fence should stay in place.”

The annual report suggests that the advisory committee wait for advice from the state departments of public safety and administration that “the threat of damage arising from rallies and protests has returned to a predictable level” and that the agencies support removing the fence.

When might that happen? The report suggests using data on the level of civil unrest in the region and the U.S.; the risk to government buildings from those protests; and the “tone and tenor” of protests.

It also cites two specific flashpoints: “the sentiment of protest groups regarding the Minneapolis Police trial” and  “the sentiment of protest groups regarding the transition of Presidential power.”

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Walz said Monday that one potential purchase could be metal detectors. Currently, only the Judicial Center has laws against firearms and uses detectors to assure compliance. Concealed handguns with permits are allowed inside the domed Capitol Building, but not rifles and other long guns. Both are permitted outside.

Flanagan said the committee will continue to talk about gun rules for the Capitol and is looking at other states, including Michigan, that have recently banned them in reaction to armed protests before and on Jan. 6.

Walker Orenstein contributed to this article.