U.S. Capitol Police officers and members of the National Guard stand guard at the Constitution Avenue entrance to the East Plaza of the Capitol where an officer was killed when a man rammed a car into the barricade on April 2. The debate over whether it should be permanent fencing will be the focus when lawmakers return next week. J. Scott Applewhite / AP Hide caption
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said during his 30 years in Congress and years earlier as a U.S. Capitol Police officer, a fence system for the Capitol had never crossed his mind.
“That was never considered when I was the leader or when I served in the Capitol Police – never considered,” said Reid, who served in various congressional roles from 1983 to 2015 and as a Capitol Police officer in the 1960s Attend law school.
Well after that January 6 uprising, and another fatal attack Reid’s thinking changed last week. He says the final decision should be left to an “apolitical” commission, similar to one proposed by house spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi.
“Fencing may be necessary,” said the retired Nevada legislature.
Last week’s tragic incident at the US Capitol came while members of Congress were at home in their districts. And when they return next week, there will be another debate about safety.
Since the Capitol has become such a target, lawmakers include a separate funding bill that focuses on new security measures and increased police force. How it’s shaped could determine whether the Capitol will be known as a hangout for neighbors and a major tourist attraction as a permanent symbol of democracy or as a fortified building with less access.
“Here we go again”
The long-running controversy over fencing has embroiled Capitol security officials, lawmakers, and the surrounding community in Washington, DC for decades.
“I was banned from using the word ‘fence’,” Terry Gainer told NPR. From 2006 to 2014, he served as Reid’s Senate Sergeant – a high-level security post – and also served as the U.S. Capitol’s chief of police.
The debate urges Capitol security officials to tighten security by providing permanent fencing against vocal objections from DC members and residents alike.
In Gainer’s previous role, he proposed a more pedestrian-friendly plan with a new name to attract support that “Capitol Gateway“That was also rejected out of hand by the members,” said Gainer.
More recently, Gainer came up with the idea as a member of a Capitol Task Force Assigned by Pelosi to investigate campus after the January 6 riot. The panel, led by retired Lieutenant General Russell Honoré, eventually recommended the use of a mobile, retractable fence system.
Gainer said he was told members wouldn’t be on board with a more permanent barrier. And while the task force plan was a solution, it wasn’t the best, he insisted.
“I thought, well, here we go again,” said Gainer. “If we only want to make recommendations that members want, then we are not making the best recommendations.”
Gainer’s predecessor as Senate chief protocol officer, Bill Pickle, agrees. Pickle, who served in his role in the mid-2000s, says the fencing idea has weighed on Congress for at least 40 years.
These security veterans argue that the Capitol should have an aesthetically pleasing fence similar to that used in the White House or the Pentagon.
They say such a barrier controls access to the Capitol grounds and provides time for law enforcement in times of threat. A mobile, retractable fence defeats this purpose by adding time to erect, they argue.
Lastly, the Acting Police Chief of the Capitol, Yogananda Pittman, gave one similar request this year.
“A 2006 safety assessment specifically recommended the installation of a permanent perimeter fence around the Capitol,” Pittman said in the January statement. “In light of recent events, I can clearly state that the physical security infrastructure needs to be significantly improved to allow permanent fencing.”
“Fenced in our democracy”
The DC’s Democratic delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is among a wave of members who support Honoré’s recommendation for temporary fencing, but she and others continue to oppose a permanent barrier.
“I think most people outside the District of Columbia forget that the Capitol was found in a neighborhood by the designers,” Norton said.
Now she is leading the charge against a non-partisan Bill “no fencing” This is supported by both House and Senate members, including Roy Blunt, Senator from Missouri, the senior Republican on the rules committee.
Norton says residents view the Capitol campus as a park and one of the few places where residents can gather to sledge in winter or go for a walk in the spring and summer months.
She also argues that the White House is a residence that should be fenced in, but that’s not the same case for the Capitol.
“The fence thing sends the wrong message about Congress itself,” Norton said. “If you have to fence in Congress, then you’ve fenced in our democracy and shown the world that you can’t worry about your own Capitol.”
Norton and other security officials agree that last week’s deadly attack – the one that’s left over 18 year old Capitol cop William Evans dead – was unfortunately an example of a working security system.
The suspect, 25-year-old Noah Green, was prevented from ramming his vehicle further into the Capitol complex by a barricade installed after 9/11.
“That was a test case that I think shows this fence should be falling,” Norton said, referring to a temporary fence installed after the riot. “And we should open our capitol to the people again.”
Some of the outer tapes of fence around the campus, including the legislature office buildings, have been torn down, but there is still a barrier around the U.S. Capitol.
Aside from the siege of the Capitol, the public was prevented from visiting what is usually a major tourist destination in DC during the pandemic. Now the legislature has to rethink how to reopen it.
Arizona Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego argued after the January 6 riot that the public should not pay the price for legislature’s safety. Instead, the Capitol must attract visitors again – just as it did when he was a student.
“This is your capitol. It’s not my capitol,” said Gallego. “I want students to come here like I did in my eighth grade and walk around and wander out and see this place as an open and welcoming place.”
But security experts say the Capitol is facing more now complex set of threats, domestic and beyond, tied to social media and local extremist groups. And that could affect how the complex receives visitors again in the future.
Pickle argues that members and residents who argue against a permanent fence today are selfish.
“You have to make sure the continuity of government continues, that the Capitol and the White House are not destroyed,” says Pickle. “So don’t be selfish. It’s about the country. If you believe in the country, you will do whatever it takes to make sure the government survives and lasts.”