Senators on Tuesday cited fears about inadequate protection at events outside the Capitol campus and in their states, and urged the Capitol Police chief and the new Senate sergeant-at-arms to re-evaluate the threat assessment process for lawmakers.
At a Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, lawmakers pushed Capitol Police Chief Matthew R. Verderosa and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael C. Stenger to justify requested funding and personnel increases for Capitol security while also ensuring protection for lawmakers elsewhere — particularly in their states and at gatherings in Washington away from Capitol Hill.
“Protection is spotty when we are off campus where many members are gathered,” said Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, the panel’s ranking Democrat. Events such as fundraisers, dinners and social gatherings that bring lawmakers together outside the Capitol campus don’t feel secure, he added.
“I think the juxtaposition between the rather large increase in Capitol Police staff on this campus with the fact that only 41 gatherings of senators and members were covered by Capitol Police outside the building is not justifiable,” he said.
Capitol Police have requested funding in fiscal 2019 for an additional 72 officers and 20 civilian positions. The Capitol Police budget request would reflect a 7 percent increase over the enacted fiscal 2018 total of $426.5 million, which itself was $33.2 million more than enacted for fiscal 2017.
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Communication among lawmakers, staff and law enforcement is central to Murphy’s concerns. He said deficiencies in information sharing contributes to inconsistent security at outside events.
“I continue to believe that we are not adequately transferring information between member offices and Capitol Police about large gatherings of members off campus,” Murphy said. He pointed to the committee’s request in the fiscal 2018 omnibus for new liaison programs between member offices and Capitol Police, saying the report the department submitted simply outlined the existing process.
The onus is currently on lawmaker offices to inquire with the sergeant-at-arms office about security for events and gatherings. Stenger told the panel that his office relies on staff requests and online searches of remote events to plan protection, saying they try to be proactive. He also said staff security trainings include information on how to get a threat assessment from his office and the Capitol Police for an event.
Murphy said relying on staff requests, instead of having a clear liaison process to assess and implement security for events, puts the decision in the hands of young staffers in roles with high turnover. “The people who would be calling you are not necessarily equipped to do it,” he said.
Earlier in May, panel Chairman Steve Daines’ state office in Missoula, Montana, was vandalized. He said he is still working with local law enforcement and Capitol Police and that the investigation is ongoing.
“Out in the field, we still have some great vulnerabilities,” Daines said, mentioning the gunman at last year’s GOP baseball practice and the shooting of former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a event in her Arizona district.
Verderosa told the panel that the force has “great cooperation” with local law enforcement to have security at member events. Daines requested that Verderosa and Stenger provide updated threat assessment reports to the committee.
The House Appropriations Committee advanced its $3.8 billion fiscal 2019 Legislative Branch bill last week with no adjustments to the Capitol Police request. Senators will add funding for Stenger's office and other Senate-specific operations in the coming weeks.