Oregon Capitol beefs up security, expects to spend $500K on security guards

New screening will begin Jan. 27, four days before the legislative session starts

By: - January 20, 2022 6:00 am

The Oregon Legislature is stepping up security at the Capitol, to the tune of more than half a million dollars per year.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat set to resign on Friday, announced last week that everyone entering the Capitol  must pass through a metal detector and face bag inspection beginning Thursday,  Jan. 27. The Legislature will convene Feb. 1. 

Guns have been illegal in the statehouse since September, following the 2021 passage of a law banning firearms in the Capitol and airport terminals. 

Legislative Administration bought four metal detectors, at a total cost of $27,000, and two X-ray machines, at a total cost of $61,000. It will hire security guards to staff the checkpoints and inspect bags, at a cost of $10,000 per week, according to legislative staff.

Oregon State Police already provides security on capitol grounds, with roving troopers and surveillance cameras throughout the building. 

The Capitol’s front entrance on Court Street and the doors facing State Street on the back remain closed because of an ongoing $70 million remodeling project, expected to be completed in December, to prepare the building for a potential earthquake, make it more accessible to people with wheelchairs and replace broken or aging windows, plumbing fixtures and electrical parts. The building opened in 1938.

Metal detectors and X-ray machines or stations for visual bag checks will be added in the two visitor entrance vestibules on either side of the rotunda, and at two entrances for employees, legislators or others with card access to the building. Legislators and employees are also subject to screening. 

The decision by Courtney and Kotek to upgrade security comes as Oregon’s statehouse and others around the country face increasing threats of violence. In December 2020, armed protesters attempted to force their way into the locked building, and several were able to enter the vestibule with help from then-Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence.

The House expelled Nearman in June, after receiving video of him appearing to plot with organizers of the protest, telling them that “somebody” would appear and walk out the entrance if they texted his cell phone number with a location.

In July, a Marion County Circuit Court judge sentenced Nearman to 80 hours of community service and banned him from the Capitol for 18 months. 

The security decision also comes as legislators and their newly unionized staff attempt to reach an agreement on a contract. Tony Ruiz, an organizer with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89, said the Legislature’s security plans predated bargaining sessions with the union, which formed last year and represents about 180 employees.

“As far as we know, staff were not consulted in developing the safety program,” Ruiz said. “But safety is definitely a concern of the staff.”

Oregon joins at least 33 other states that have installed metal detectors in their state buildings. Prior to closing for Covid in spring 2020, the statehouse was one of the most open in the nation.

Frankie Bell, a Capitol fixture who helped launch the Oregon State Capitol Foundation after three decades managing visitor services, said she understands the decision to install security checks, though she was proud of how open Oregon’s statehouse was.

Bell said it reminded her of former Gov. Mark Hatfield’s decision to close the Capitol tower in the 1960s. For the first couple decades of the building’s existence, anyone could walk in and climb the 121 steps to an observation deck right under the gold pioneer atop the Capitol dome. 

But because some visitors littered and graffitied the tower, Hatfield opted to close it. Visitors now only have access through tours, which have been canceled for the past two years because of the pandemic. 

“County courthouses have had that kind of equipment for a long time, and we resisted at the Capitol,” Bell said. “In a way I was kind of glad we did, but I fully accept the idea that times are changing and we have to change with them.”

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.