Security Measures to Be Reviewed
By Stephen Barr
Security practices were debated at almost every federal building as federal employees returned to work yesterday following Friday's shootout at the Capitol that left two police officers dead. Russell Eugene Weston Jr., 41, has been charged with killing the officers when he burst into the building.
The federal government, and Washington in particular, operates with a "patchwork quilt" of security practices that have evolved in federal buildings since the 1980s and need to be reviewed, said Robert A. Peck, the commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at the General Services Administration (GSA).
For example, Peck said, agencies have different procedures at their entrances for greeting visitors and employees, leaving the impression that some buildings are easier to get into than others. In others, he said, some security practices inconvenience visitors and employees without enhancing the overall level of safety.
"I don't mean in any way that security is deficient," Peck said, "but we have a lot of inconsistencies."
Besides the review that Peck will begin, legislation is also pending in Congress, introduced before the Capitol shooting, that would restructure and strengthen the Federal Protective Service, the security arm of the GSA.
The government owns a variety of buildings across the nation, some of which are more easily secured. Some have narrow entrance areas designed to prevent a gang of three or four persons from rushing in, while others use revolving doors to slow access. Others, though, operate with large lobbies and only one or two guards to check identification and operate X-ray machines. And, of course, security officials at federal buildings cannot always anticipate attacks by individuals.
"The single-person flights of violence, I don't know how you stop it," said Tom Doyle, a former Secret Service agent who now works as a security consultant.
The Secret Service maintains a database on individuals who draw the agency's scrutiny and makes the information available to other federal agencies. Weston's delusional claims -- his family has described him as suffering from mental illness -- brought him into contact with the CIA and Secret Service, which interviewed him about comments and letters regarding President Clinton and the government.
"One of the things that we all may need to do is figure out how to profile the people who make these threats and the ones more or less to be worried about," Peck said.
But much of the government's security planning has been directed at preventing terrorism or large-scale attacks, in part because of the Oklahoma City bombing.
In that incident, on April 19, 1995, a truck loaded with explosives was blown up outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, shattering the structure and killing 168 people. Only one guard, a contract security officer, was on duty at the time, responsible for patrolling three buildings.
The tragedy caused Clinton to bow to the Secret Service's insistence on closing Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Later, streets were closed around congressional buildings on Capitol Hill.
At GSA, which operates more than 1,800 government-owned buildings and more than 6,200 leased locations across the country and in Puerto Rico and Guam, the Oklahoma City bombing led to a doubling of security guards around government offices.
GSA's Federal Protective Service grew from 376 uniformed officers to nearly 700. But most of the security personnel guarding federal buildings are not federal workers but employees of private companies hired by the government. The number of such contract guards jumped from 2,300 to more than 5,000.
Numerous agencies prohibited curbside parking outside their buildings, installed metal detectors and X-ray machines at their entrances, installed barriers to slow traffic, began monitoring with closed-circuit television and improved outside lighting.
The enhanced security has added to the cost of government operations. Since 1995, for example, GSA has spent $397 million on security efforts.
While GSA provides security for a large chunk of the government, a number of agencies control their own security and, in some cases, rely on contract guards. They include, for example, the departments of Defense, State and Veterans Affairs and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs Service.
These agencies set up guard services during the 1980s, when GSA moved away from centralized control of building management and allowed some agencies to take control of their facilities, including maintenance and security.
Over time, different security practices developed that now need to be reviewed, Peck said. "We have the jurisdiction to look at it and we will."
Peck defended the government's use of properly trained contract guards, saying such forces free federal officers from duties that have little to do with police work or investigations.
In coming months, Peck said, GSA plans to move toward "a community policing concept," which will result in fewer uniformed officers patrolling in cruisers and more officers assigned to buildings, where they will oversee contract guards and security equipment while available to respond quickly to serious incidents at buildings.
But the proper role and responsibilities for the FPS has been debated for several years and the debate has intensified since the Oklahoma City bombing. Last month, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), a former sheriff, introduced legislation to overhaul the service.
"I am deeply concerned that low manpower levels, a flawed management structure, an unfair compensation system and the increasing use of unqualified contract guards are seriously compromising the ability of FPS to do its job," Traficant said.
One of FPS's biggest problems involves jurisdiction: In some cities, officers cannot make arrests once they walk out the door of a federal building. Traficant's bill would create a 500-foot zone around buildings for arrests and patrols.
The bill would require contract officers to undergo the same background checks as FPS officers and mandate that GSA set training standards for guards.
The bill also would direct the General Accounting Office to study the feasibility of merging all federal building security services under FPS.
Peck said GSA supports most of the bill but objects to a provision that would remove FPS from the Public Buildings Service and create a separate FPS commissioner reporting directly to the head of GSA. "Security needs to be completely integrated with building operations," Peck said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company