AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine State House, long known for its wide-open doors and free access, will soon have a different look and feel when visitors enter.
The state’s most public building will soon have two walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines at the main entrance, something that may come as a surprise to Mainers who spend a lot of time there, but not so much to visitors from other states where heightened security has been in place for some time.
Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin said Maine will start screening people entering the domed building as early as September, when funding for heightened security becomes available. The system will be tweaked before it’s fully implemented in January when the Legislature returns for its 2012 session.
For now, Gauvin is checking with other states that have implemented tighter security, especially in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks raised the nation’s awareness of potential public safety threats.
In doing so, he will try to strike a balance between public access and public safety.
“We’re going to make it as minimally intrusive as possible,” Gauvin said. He is trying to keep a focus on what the potential threats are in the State House, which are different from what would be seen in an airport or courthouse.
The Legislature appropriated $546,000 to beef up security. While sporadic incidents have occurred in recent years, few if any crossed the line where public safety was compromised.
This spring, a judge ordered Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, to stay away from the State House as part of his bail conditions after the legislator was arrested for allegedly pulling a gun in a parking lot at a Waterville doughnut shop. Even before that, other lawmakers had said they were concerned about Wintle’s erratic behavior in the State House.
But those events happened long after officials started thinking about improving security in the State House area. Gauvin said at least three separate studies in the past few years have concluded that Capitol Police should be screening.
However, movement has been slow in a state where public money is tight, people prize their right to bear arms and the gun ownership rate is high. This spring, a bill was introduced that sought to allow guns in the State House, but it was withdrawn by its sponsor.
“It’s always been a sticky issue with the public, balancing free access with people feeling safe,” said Gauvin.
The move to tighter security is part of a national trend and he’s studying how other state capitols implement their systems.
Some states, including Kansas, upgraded their capitol security with metal detectors after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six others were killed in Tucson in January. The shootings also prompted several other states, including Maine, to review their capitol security protocols.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said that as of February, 26 states were requiring visitors to their legislative buildings to pass through metal detectors. Most other capitols had metal detectors on hand in case of security concerns.
In Maine, Capitol police are working out how the new security screening will be implemented. Still undecided is exactly who will be subject to screening, said Gauvin. Some states, he noted, allow legislators to use separate entrances and bypass screening. Another question mark is whether State House staff would be exempted.
It might make sense, said Gauvin, to have a relaxed policy for the hundreds of schoolchildren who visit. For others, including tourists who are visiting the State House, seeing the security screening will not be a shock, he said. Many who visit now ask if they should hand over their handbags or submit to searches, and express surprise when told there’s no screening.
Any final security policy, the chief said, would have to be approved by the Legislature’s leaders.
“I think our goal is first to educate people,” said Gauvin. “People are still going to be allowed to come and go freely. People just have to think a little bit and leave things in the car you might have brought with you.”