AUGUSTA — A security checkpoint is now operating at the main entrance to the State House, screening visitors to keep weapons out of the building, Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin said Wednesday.

The new security measures began this week, following a decision in May to allocate the $546,000 needed to pay staffers to run the scanning machines.

The decision to install the units, which the state has owned for close to a decade, came after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona and Maine Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, was arrested and charged with pointing a gun at a man in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot in Waterville.

Even before the two incidents last year, Republicans in leadership positions began asking questions about whether the State House could be more secure, said Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford.

“I think we need to be diligent about security in today’s world,” he said. “We want to protect the people who work in this building and make sure, when little kids come to the Capitol, they go home in one piece.”

Yet a key Democratic leader said the machines are an unnecessary expense.

“These new scanning machines give a huge false sense of security,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “If someone wants to do something at the State House, those two machines are not going to stop them. We’re spending over a half million on something that’s not going to effectively make anyone that much safer.”

Alfond, the assistant Senate minority leader, said he has heard from state workers who have complained that the Cross State Office Building, which is connected to the State House by a tunnel, does not have security. Legislative committees meet in the Cross building as well as the State House.

Gauvin said the state doesn’t have enough equipment or manpower to extend the security beyond the State House. He said the units are portable so one could be moved to the Cross building if there were a contentious public hearing or if threats were made.

Gauvin said he hired four additional people to run the scanners. He said the system is designed to detect weapons, and a few knives were confiscated — and later returned to their owners — in the first day and a half of its operation.

At the checkpoint, each visitor must put any items they have into a basket and walk through a scanner, similar to those in federal buildings and courthouses. State workers, legislators and others who have state-issued identification badges can pass through a separate scanner after swiping their ID cards.

The screening equipment was bought with Homeland Security money after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Gauvin said the state wanted to be ready to install the equipment quickly if there was a threat of future attacks.

The Legislative Council, with Republicans in the majority, voted last year to allocate the money to pay for the security personnel. Although that was an increase to the Capitol Police budget, the council still cut more than $8 million overall from the Legislature’s two-year budget.

Gauvin said the reaction to the checkpoint has been “pretty good” and his staff has worked to explain the new system to state workers.

“The people most concerned are the employees and staff,” he said. “The public doesn’t think twice. It’s expected.”

 

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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