Here’s how complex security is becoming on the Capitol complex, as related by Capt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol’s Capitol Security and Executive Protection division.
On May 6, three groups of protesters descended on the Capitol. President Donald Trump’s supporters rallied inside the building. A counter-protest group railing against white supremacy and fascism were outside demonstrating on the Capitol’s south steps. Meanwhile a third protest group of white nationalist “alt-right” types was screaming on the promenade.
As emotions ran out of control, scuffles broke out. One protester was seen on camera getting kicked in the head.
Things devolved to a point where the pro-Trump rally’s organizer commandeered a bullhorn from the people protesting against his group so that he could yell at the third group to get lost.
“He wanted nothing to do with them,” Roeske told members of the Capitol Security Advisory Committee on July 10. “I am going, ‘I can’t believe this. But we’ll make it work.’”
In an age when protests are becoming more boisterous, frequent and rapidly organized on social media, Capitol security plays from an increasingly improvisational chord sheet.
Security personnel were forced to play by ear, Roeske said, when on May 23 an immigrant rights group — with seeming spontaneity — staged a multi-day occupation of the governor’s reception room.
The group ultimately was allowed to stay, Roeske said, until the special session adjourned in the wee hours of May 26.
Part of the July 10 advisory committee meeting focused on what to do about the Capitol’s increasingly agitated protesters. Opinions diverged on whether anything should be done.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate Judiciary committee and a new security committee member, warned that if action is not taken, agitators who already disrupt Capitol business might turn violent.
Limmer was first elected to the House in 1988 and became a senator in 1996. He said up until about 10 years ago, protests were restricted to the steps outside the Capitol, except in inclement weather. Now, he said, they commonly overwhelm the building’s interior.
During the past session, Limmer said, there was a moment when two protest groups stood outside Senate chambers shouting each other down, Limmer said. It became nearly impossible for senators on the floor to conduct business, he said.
He stopped short of advocating for protesters to be pushed back outside to the Capitol steps, but Limmer said some kind of action is sorely needed.
“The protest is very close and it’s becoming very personal,” Limmer said. “If it continues, I think we are just asking for it.”
Sven Lindquist, the Senate’s sergeant at arms, said organized events operating under proper permits tend to go well. It is mostly non-permitted protests organized online that tend to get out of hand, straining resources. During one protest, for instance, Lindquist said that 80 state troopers were called in off the highways to maintain order.
He, too, worried whether safety might become compromised. “So far, so good — but we are on the verge,” Lindquist said.
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, pushed back against limiting protester access. “In many ways, it’s some of the cost of doing business,” Nash said. “I don’t want to be the guy that says no.”
Ultimately, no changes were recommended. In an interview after the hearing, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, the group’s chair, said she was glad the subject was raised.
“I didn’t hearing anybody suggesting that we should do anything differently,” Smith said. “I don’t have a strong sense that we should be doing something differently. But it is an important conversation to have.”
Limmer, also speaking after the hearing, had a different take. His new committee perch gives him a window into campus security that might generate security-related legislative changes, he said — though he did not say what those might be.
“I picked up a few ideas,” Limmer said. “But those are things we will consider, and maybe put some of the discussion into action next year.”
Earlier in the meeting, the group heard an Administration Department presentation on cost estimates for upgrading physical security around the Capitol. The Capitol building itself was not part of the discussion — security enhancements were included in its recent restoration.
Improved security at the Minnesota Judicial Center, State and Centennial office buildings, underground tunnels and elsewhere around campus has been discussed since at least 2013. A study was completed by Miller Dunwiddie Architecture in 2014 and the advisory committee adopted its report that same year.
Yet little has been accomplished. While the committee recommended full funding for the upgrades in both 2015 and 2016, no bonding bills passed those years. Nor did the 2017 bonding bill include the funding.
Chris Guevin, the Administration Department’s facilities management director, said the delays have added expense. In 2016, the department estimated a one-year delay would bump costs up 8 percent, to $28.3 million. A two-year delay would inflate costs by 17 percent, to $30.7 million.
As it turns out, even those are low-ball figures. The latest estimate is $38.82 million, more than $10 million above the advertised price from just four years ago.
Guevin said that new number comes from an ongoing pre-design study commissioned by his agency after the original report. It includes new security features not originally considered, such as bollards to block explosives-laden cars from ramming building walls and more closed-circuit cameras to be placed throughout the complex.
Copies of the pre-design plan were not distributed to members June 10 because the report is only about 90 percent complete, Guevin said. It will be ready for presentation at the group’s next quarterly hearing, he said.
Guevin said his department plans to request funding for the upgrades again in the 2018 session’s bonding bill.
Nash expressed impatience with the snail-like progress. He urged new committee members to review a non-public classified document detailing the complex’s security vulnerabilities. “I think it is going to be an eye-opener for you,” Nash said.
He also urged them to press toward completion and not treat Capitol security as a political football. “This is the center of government for Minnesota and we have got to protect the people who are going to be here, both for business and for visits,” Nash said.
“A lot of work has gone into this,” he added. “We have got to get this pushed across the finish line.”