In June, shortly before the Minnesota Legislature held its most recent special session, the fence that had surrounded the Minnesota State Capitol for more than a year came down, and elected officials could once again use the term “The People’s House” without irony.
Put up after the killing of George Floyd, the fence was then left in place following alleged threats from people denying the election of President Joe Biden. Its removal was a symbol that the seat of state government was reopened to the public.
“Welcome to your house,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said on June 10, the first day that the domed Capitol was open to the public and just days after the old fence had been dismantled. “It has been over 400 days that we haven’t had folks here. So it feels good to be back, and we’re glad that people’s voices and opinions and advocacy are where they should be.”
Now, less than three months later, chain link fencing is back up at the Capitol, a reminder that the questions about the building’s long-term security have not been resolved. And an apparent decision — or perhaps a hope — that permanent fencing would not be needed is being reassessed.
The decision to restore the fencing was blamed on threats to occupy the Capitol as part of protests against the Line 3 oil pipeline project. Protesters object to the pipeline’s perpetuation of fossil fuel reliance, its impact on the climate and its routing through tribal areas protected by treaties. While there was also an anti-vaccination and anti-masking rally, the Line 3 protest appears to have triggered the decision on fencing.
The leadership of both the state patrol and the Department of Public Safety say the use of fencing at the Capitol has not only helped protect the building from occupation, damage and vandalism, it’s also allowed police and National Guard soldiers to keep protests farther away from the building. “It gives us time and distance and allows us to de-escalate a crowd,” said Col. Matt Langer, the chief of the Minnesota State Patrol. “That’s the difference with a fence that people don’t understand.” (Update: the section of the fence that blocked the Capitol from the South steps was removed Thursday and the building is again open to the public.)
But will erecting and removing temporary fencing be a common occurrence each time there is a perceived threat?
Those charged with security around the campus say that isn’t a long-term solution. “Nobody likes the idea of a fence,” Langer said. “I don’t anticipate the fence being up and down and up and down. But I can’t also predict the future.”
State officials are drafting an update to a 2017 security analysis, which will be presented to architectural and security advisory committees by the end of the year. That will then drive decisions as to what security installations — including fencing — will be requested of the 2022 Legislature.
“We’re wide open to what’s out there,” said Chris Guevin, the director of facilities management for the state Department of Administration. “The most obvious thing people will think of is a fence. But we’re not sure that’s the right solution for the building, to totally encircle it.”
One possible option is to have partial fencing or landscaping that could then be used in conjunction with temporary fencing in response to new threats.
Anything that affects the architecture of the 116-year-old Capitol, however, would need the approval of the Capitol Area Architecture and Planning Board and a signoff from the Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security.
“Certainly anything we do will involve an architect,” Guevin said. “Whatever happens will have to be very tasteful and we will enhance the look of the Capitol Building. That will be the ultimate goal of whatever it is that goes up there.”
A consultant, Miller Dunwiddie, is also looking at ways to keep the expansive Capitol mall safe during demonstrations, especially during times when rival protests occur simultaneously.
“How do you segregate different groups?” Guevin asked. “Can we provide more defined space for them and therefore diffuse any issues that could arise …. We don’t see a fence going around the mall, but there could be some landscaping that could be put in to facilitate different groups.”
John Harrington, the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said he looks to concepts such as crime prevention through environmental design — aka CPTED — to envision something short of fences around the Capitol.
A former member of the state Senate, Harrington knows that elected officials aren’t happy with anything that keeps state residents out of the building. “I recognize that whole issue of it being the People’s House,” Harrington said. “I enjoyed rally days in the Capitol. But if I’m to protect the Capitol, I have to balance that out.
“We have found that when you explain it to (elected officials) in detail, you get the bipartisan support that the (advisory) commission came out with,” Harrington said.
Before the latest fence was put up, he said he spent time describing the intelligence that his department had to justify it. “We had statements posted on Twitter feeds by different organizations that talked about direct action and talked about occupation that were two actions being proposed at the State Capitol,” Harrington said.
The current fencing at the Capitol includes protection of two statues of former governors — John Johnson and Knute Nelson — that flank the lower steps in front of the main entrance. Nelson’s statue has drawn particular interest because of his role in the Nelson Act of 1889, which removed many Ojibwe people off their land. A nearby statue of Christopher Columbus was toppled by protesters in 2020.
More troopers, security guards
Security around the suite of buildings that make up the Capitol campus in St. Paul has produced lots of conversations and reports — but not the sort of money those reports say is necessary.
Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz requested $43 million in security upgrades for the 16 buildings and 25 parking ramps on the St. Paul campus. But of that, $33 million was for work previously designed but not funded by prior Legislatures. Only $10 million was for new upgrades, subject to the update of the security plan that’s expected to be completed this fall.
The bonding request was preceded by a letter from Walz that advised of increased police presence around the campus as the regular session — and the inauguration of President Biden — approached.
“There is no doubt that the hateful rhetoric, calls to incite violence, and threats to life and property have significantly changed the way we will conduct business at the Capitol,” Walz wrote.
And he urged a quick response to his bonding request. “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,” he wrote.
The Legislature acted neither early nor late, as a bill to sell state bonds to pay for state construction projects — including the security upgrades — never materialized.
The state operating budget passed this year did contain some money for security, however, and Walz asked for additional State Patrol troopers assigned to the Capitol. Currently, 10 are assigned to that detail but an additional 40 have been temporarily shifted from highway duties to security.
The governor also requested, and the Legislature approved, 21 additional troopers — as well as 13 non-sworn security guards — to be assigned to Capitol security. The budget also will pay to equip all state troopers, including the new officers. The additional personnel will cost a little more than $13 million over the two-years of the current budget. Equipping those assigned to the Capitol will cost $844,000.
Langer said the additional troopers and Capitol security guards will provide a permanent presence and allow him to redeploy troopers who were brought in during unrest last summer and in January. “It was really in response to a lot of the challenges we’ve seen over the past year with protests and damage, or attempted damage,” Langer said. “It was a recognition that we need more staff to do a better job.”
The same budget gave Langer authority and money to add additional 42 troopers for highway duties, or what are sometimes called road troopers.
Getting money for new troopers doesn’t mean they’re on the ground yet, he said. Troopers must be recruited and trained, so the patrol is relying on overtime for currently sworn troopers until the new class can finish the process over the next year.
Evolving threat concerns
The Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security is made up of members of the Walz Administration, the Supreme Court and legislators from the House and Senate. Lt. Gov. Flanagan is the chair, and she presided over a series of meetings earlier in the year to talk about security following the Floyd-related protests and the January demonstration over the election.
The committee discussed fencing, metal detectors, other security installations and whether guns should be banned from inside the Capitol. Currently, concealed handguns with permits are allowed inside, but not rifles and other long guns. Both are permitted outside.
None of those issues was resolved, and even Walz’s bonding bill request left open what the additional $10 million would be spent on. The state Department of Administration had advised waiting for an update to a 2017 consultants report that was to look at security needs in light of changing threats.
Concerns about stopping so-called lone wolf assailants or terrorist attacks that might use cars, explosives or weapons against individuals have now grown to include large crowds surging in the Capitol or other symbolic structures.
Langer said he has met with the security consultant and stressed that a permanent solution to security concerns will involve both staffing and design. Harrington said states and the federal government remain concerned about vehicles being used as weapons, either as battering rams or to carry explosives.
“We recognize that domestic violent extremists are a different kind of attack than we would have been looking at post 9/11, when we were thinking about foreeign-based violent extremists,” Harrington said. “At this point we can’t afford to neglect either.”