Security complacency a concern as anniversary of Giffords shooting nears

Lawmaker and staff complacency regarding Congressional security has been on the rise, even as the one-year anniversary of the Arizona shooting that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) approaches, officials on Capitol Hill worry.

“The further you get away from an event, people have a tendency to begin forgetting about the significance and how you prevent such a thing,” Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer told The Hill.

On Jan. 8, 2011, suspect Jared Loughner opened fire at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz., wounding Giffords and 12 others, and killing six including Gifford's staffer Gabe Zimmerman.

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“I think in some respects, business almost went back to usual,” Gainer said Friday. “It reminds me of how sensitive Americans were after the attack on 9/11, and 11 years later how it gets less and less on people’s consciousness of why you do security things and you start to wonder if we’re overreacting.”

In the wake of the shooting, Gainer’s office saw a significant rise in the number of requests for security evaluations of lawmakers’ offices and homes. But that has dropped off as time passed.

Capitol Police officers also told The Hill that staffers have expressed frustration at security measures around the Capitol they perceive to be excessive and time-consuming.

“I think it’s a pretty natural tendency of all of us to get frustrated,” Gainer said, adding that he himself had been annoyed with airport security over the holiday season.

“Everybody’s moving pretty quick up here and it can be frustrating. But I think that’s the exception rather than the rule,” he added. “I think the large majority of staff members up here get it. They’re very sensitive about suspicious packages and alerts to stay away from areas.”

According to Gainer, both the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms as well as the Capitol Police have continually reached out to staff and lawmakers to be aware of suspicious packages and activity, as well as being proactive about event security. And those efforts have had positive results. 

Staffers “know that part of the planning process is to have a security component,” he said. That “may mean nothing more than letting the local police know what you’re doing, or it may mean having armed officers at the event.”

“I think that’s rather permanent,” Gainer added. “There’s been a palpable change in the relationship of the officers of the offices of the Senate and House side and the staffs with local law enforcement on events.”

In the months following the shooting, the Capitol Police also strengthened their threat assessment section and added employees around the area to support that, Gainer said. But it was a careful balancing act between increasing security and not making the Capitol and lawmakers inaccessible.

“Most of what [Capitol Police officers] do is to be invisible so that everybody else can go about their business, but we’ve got it covered,” he said. “The bottom line is you don’t see new fortresses set up.”

The Capitol Police also conduct orientations for lawmakers and staff regarding security concerns, according to department spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider.

“Following the shooting of Cong. Giffords, Members of Congress have been encouraged to establish and maintain contacts with local law enforcement through their law enforcement liaisons,” Schneider wrote in an email to The Hill Thursday.

“The positive working relationship between the USCP and local law enforcement agencies facilitates the safety [and] security of events hosted by Members of Congress around the country."

House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood declined to comment on security specifics in the year following the Arizona shooting. But he did say, “We continue to monitor and evaluate all threats and intelligence.”

“Security, by its nature, is a fluid and evolving concept,” he wrote in an email Friday. “I am confident that the Capitol Police and the Sergeant at Arms Office will continue to provide a high level of security and protection to the Members, staff and visitors.”

Following the shooting, the Senate Sergeant at Arms had also been working with the Secret Service to create a Congressional staff security training program. But, said Gainer, the sheer number of staffers made that plan an impossibility.

Instead, the Senate and House Sergeants at Arms and the Capitol Police are coordinating with the Secret Service and the FBI to create a DVD that will instruct staffers in personal, office and event security measures.

The DVD is expected to be released within the next 90 days, Gainer added.

The Senate Sergeant at Arms also hopes that media coverage surrounding the anniversary of the shooting will remind people of the importance of security moving forward.

“I do believe the one-year anniversary — when there are stories written about the tragedy and [Giffords’] gradual but steady recovery — will refresh people’s memory,” Gainer said.


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