By Jordy Yager - 01/13/11 01:51 AM EST
The U.S. Capitol Police offered reassurances to lawmakers and staff Thursday about their protection, but one lawmaker said his colleagues don’t think threats against them receive enough investigation.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) said he’s spoken to lawmakers who are unsatisfied with the response of police and the FBI to threats.
Capitol Police Chief Philip Morse said he was unaware of any criticism of how the department has handled threats to lawmakers. He emphasized to reporters that members and staff should contact the Capitol Police immediately if they are not satisfied with how a reported threat has been handled.
“If anyone has an issue with what we are doing, they need to contact me and we’ll make sure that we address the issues that they have," said Morse. “We’re working very hard. I’ve been here 26 years working, and I take a great deal of pride in making sure this institution is safe, so if any one has issues please get a hold of us so we can resolve them right away.”
Saturday’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) at a public event in her home district has caused lawmakers to re-evaluate their security. It has also set off a period of introspection for the police who protect them.
“We all wish we could have changed it,” Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer said of the violence that left six people dead, including a staffer for the congresswoman. “All of us in the law enforcement business feel like failures when anybody gets murdered, but there’s going to be these events where there’s not going to be much police around.”
Gainer said the assassination attempt was an anomaly; the last member of Congress to be murdered was in 1978. He also appeared to dismiss one security suggestion: assigning a police officer to every member of Congress.
Gainer said that the millions of dollars that effort would cost would be better spent on the healthcare system. Giffords’s alleged shooter is a 22-year-old college dropout who has reportedly had a series of mental-health issues.
“If we had that type of money, there are a lot of other places we could put it, [and] healthcare is one of them,” said Gainer. “If there was a better healthcare system, he would’ve been in the healthcare system and never have been in that parking lot.”
Jackson’s comments suggested unease among at least some members about their protection.
Wednesday’s meetings came as several members reported receiving recent threats and at least one lawmaker announced plans to move his office into a more secure area in his district. Sen. Michael Bennet’s (D-Colo.) office said earlier this week that the FBI had arrested a man who allegedly made threats against him, and the Seattle Times reported on Wednesday that another man was arrested after allegedly threatening to kill Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).
Jackson told reporters after the closed-door House briefing that some of his colleagues were not satisfied with the degree to which officials probe threatening incidents.
“There are other members of Congress who are now speaking [and] suggesting incidents that have happened to them that have not been thoroughly investigated,” he said.
A number of death threats received media attention during the last days of the healthcare debate.
Former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an opponent of abortion rights, released death threats he’d received to the media after he came out in support of the healthcare bill.
Stupak initially opposed the legislation because he did not think the language in it preventing federal funds from being used to pay for abortions was strong enough. Stupak signed on to the bill after that language was changed.
Other lawmakers who received death threats included former Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.).
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has yet to weigh in on what steps the lower chamber will take to better ensure the security of members and their staffs, saying only that he would rely on the recommendations of Capitol Police and the House sergeant at arms.
Besides Gainer and Morse, FBI Executive Assistant Director Shawn Henry and House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood attended Wednesday’s meetings. They told lawmakers and staff to notify the Capitol Police of any possible threat made against them.
While the Capitol’s security is fortified by the 1,800-person Capitol Police force, district staffers are largely dependent on local and state law enforcement for their protection. Gainer said that if a member had consulted with him and Morse about an event like the one Giffords held — with no existing threats to her and a small group of people in front of a grocery store on a Saturday morning — he would have advised the lawmaker to contact the local police and coordinate protection through them.
Morse and Gainer on Wednesday advised members and staff to develop a plan for what they would do in the event of another shooting during a public meeting. The plan should include noting the traffic patterns around the event’s site and the easiest escape route, the closest medical facility and several possible ways to ensure crowd control if it became panicked.
Jackson has proposed reversing a Republican-led vote last week that cut the office budgets of lawmakers by 5 percent, saying that members can use that money to move offices, buy security cameras and alarm systems and reimburse local law enforcement officials.
“A member in their district [is] vulnerable,” he said. “Our government, at the district level, is vulnerable, and something needs to be done about it.”
He also has proposed that the U.S. Marshals service take a stronger role in protecting members of Congress while they are in their districts.
—This story was updated from a 2:15 p.m. version.