The downside of security upgrades for legislators
Published: July 29, 2011
Time posted: 8:02 am
RALEIGH — More than 20 years ago, some fellow angry about something or other whacked a window of the North Carolina legislative building with a hammer.
When you ask old-timers about violence that’s occurred at the legislative building, that’s about the worst that they can come up with.
The building has seen some protests that got a bit out of hand.
About a decade ago, some conservative activists tossed tea bags from the House gallery as legislators considered a budget that included tax hikes.
This year, the liberals took their turn getting arrested and escorted from the building as protests erupted over budget cuts or other proposals from the Republican majority. Once again, the House chamber has been the place to be and be seen.
A group of high school and college students unfurled a banner from the House gallery in protest of budget cuts. State NAACP chapter President William Barber and some friends were led away in handcuffs after interrupting House debate with a chant inspired by a biblical verse, also in protest of budget cuts. And gay rights activists briefly burst onto to House floor before being arrested.
It’s understandable that legislators might have been unnerved by a couple of those incidents.
In a world filled with politically inspired violence, it’s also understandable that some North Carolina legislators aren’t satisfied with the building’s existing security measures.
So a $3 million security upgrade, including metal detectors and more security posts, is on the way.
State Sen. Andrew Brock, a Davie County Republican, is among the legislators overseeing the effort. He calls the current level of security “a failure of prior administrations.”
The chief architect of Brock’s failure would be former Senate leader Marc Basnight.
Basnight was adamant that the legislative building should open and accessible to the larger public. After all, the public pays the light bill. It pays for salaries of most of those in the building. The happenings there are supposed to be for its benefit.
Basnight stood in the way of more restrictive security measures even though he might have been their biggest beneficiary. He never revealed publicly that he received a death threat from a man who at one point entered the building and was considered dangerous.
Perhaps Basnight’s stance was foolhardy. Maybe the time has come for the legislative building to be at least as secure as other government buildings.
But if in doing so legislators shield themselves from more public interaction, what they’ve really done is make themselves and state government less accountable to the governed.
The most troubling part of the security upgrade is a plan to add 16 new General Assembly police officers. Their hiring would follow a 40 percent reduction in the State Capitol Police, which answers to the executive branch, and legislation expanding the powers of the General Assembly police.
Creating a larger, more powerful police force that answers directly to elected leaders in the most political branch of state government is a recipe for trouble.
Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.