Sign of times: metal detectors coming to State Capitol

Monday, November 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Metal detectors will soon be installed at the state Capitol, putting a crimp in public access to the people's building for next February's legislative session.

Plans also call for sealing off several entrances to the building, the state's No. 1 tourist attraction, which now features an ornate, $21 million dome completed in 2002.

Metal detectors are expected to be delivered by mid-December and ``we anticipate having them up and running, operational and manned by sometime in mid-January,'' said Kevin Ward, acting public safety commissioner.

The news may be disconcerting for groups who have regularly flooded the Capitol to confront lawmakers with their grievances or seek extra funding or new programs.

Preliminary plans called for installing detectors at four locations, which would be the only entry points into the building under normal circumstances.

``I hope the people who are making the security decisions realize that this is a free country and that Oklahomans have a right to ask our state politicians to answer our questions,'' said Bruce Hunt, Oklahoma Education Association official, when informed of the plans.

The Capitol has often been a rallying point for a variety of groups representing such diverse interests as the elderly, children, business, labor and minorities.

Last February, more than 1,000 doctors wearing white coats lobbied lawmakers in hallways and their offices, seeking help in reducing medical malpractice rates.

The next month dozens of Oklahomans using wheelchairs, canes and walkers came to the Capitol to ask for tighter regulation of nursing homes.

Probably the biggest demonstration occurred a few years ago when more than 20,000 teachers rallied, a prelude to a record $3,000 teacher pay increase approved by lawmakers.

In 1990, thousands of teachers literally kept the Capitol under siege with days of protests leading to passage of a massive school reform and tax increase measure.

Demonstrations like that may now be a thing of the past, said veteran Rep. Bill Paulk, D-Oklahoma City, who is among those feeling queazy about erecting metal detectors at Capitol doorways.

``I really hate the idea of having them,'' said Paulk, who served on two tasks forces dealing with homeland security. ``I'm sorry to say that that is the world we live in today.''

As far as the large protests of the past, Paulk said: ``I can't imagine teachers coming out like they have and how you could get them through the metal detectors. They would line up all the way to 10th Street. It is going to take a period of adjustment.''

Hunt said it is hard to argue with attempts to protect the state assets and workers and those coming to the Capitol will have to prepare for having their briefcases and purses searched and make sure they have identification.

``It's disappointing we have to protect ourselves from the few who would do us harm,'' he said.

For years, officials have complained privately about lax security at the Capitol.

While the building is periodically patrolled by Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers and has cameras at strategic locations, security is severely lacking, Paulk said.

Scott Meacham, state finance director who is involved in security planning, said the absence of adequate perimeter security surprised him when he began his job last November, a year after the Sept. 11 attacks and seven after the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City.

``The county courthouse in Arapaho has more security than our state Capitol,'' said Meacham, former Elk City banker.

Funding for the detectors and other security efforts _ including increasing the number of officers at the Capitol _ comes from a $1.3 million legislative appropriation and a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ward said officials are making final decisions on where the detectors will be located and on other details such as what items will be allowed in the building.

``It is safe to say that some items will be prohibited, obviously, a gun,'' he said. ``I don't know if we will go down to what the aircraft carriers do, like fingernail clippers.''

He said the goal will be to make security screening thorough but ``the least disruptive possible.''

``Certainly, we don't want to create an atmosphere where people won't want to come to the Capitol,'' he said. ``We want to avoid that. We just want them to be safe when they are here.''