La. Capitol security chief says D.C. counterparts should’ve had ‘much better response’

Legislators plan to discuss security at Baton Rouge building

By: - January 8, 2021 3:30 pm
Louisiana Capitol Building

The Louisiana Legislature ended its regular session Thursday. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)

As sergeant-at-arms for the Louisiana House of Representatives, Clarence Russ is the chief of security at the Louisiana Capitol whose duty it is to protect not only state property but any person — elected official or not — who’s inside. 

After witnessing a complete implosion of security at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday as a right-wing mob swarmed and infiltrated the building where Congress was certifying the results of the presidential election, Russ wondered how U.S Capitol Police could have been so unprepared.

“It’s easier to speculate from the outside looking in,” he said in an interview Thursday, “but one has to wonder what was the plan going into that day’s activity. From the outside looking in, it seems like there should’ve been a much better response.”

While Russ could not share details due to strategic reasons, some of the security protocols at the state capitol are visible to anyone who visits. The building has four guard houses that monitor and control vehicle and foot traffic entering the parking lots. The building’s entrances are typically locked with security personnel deciding whom to allow inside. On other days, they may be unlocked with security personnel immediately greeting the visitor and deciding whether to allow them further entry or turn them away.

Visitors are then routed through metal detectors. Pockets must be emptied, and all items, bags, purses and briefcases are passed through X-ray scanners and sometimes manually inspected. 

Security personnel can be found both roaming and stationed at many points throughout the halls and chambers of the building. They typically keep a watchful eye on visitors in the building, and are there on such a consistent basis that most can easily distinguish the faces of visitors from the familiar ones of legislators and staff. 

Russ said his staff works with a community of other law enforcement agencies when preparing for protests and other large gatherings.

Is all that enough? How would the Louisiana Capitol and people inside fare if there were an intrusion similar to what unfolded in Washington on Wednesday or at the capitol in Salem, Oregon in December or at the capitol in Lansing, Michigan in April?

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, said he and other lawmakers have been contemplating similar questions since Wednesday and plan to meet in the near future to discuss the status of and possibly update or bolster security at the building. 

“From a protest perspective, it’s something (capitol security) is watching very closely,” he said. “They’re keenly aware of it and are making presentations…We go into session in April, so any adjustments that need to be made, any enhanced security protocols and equipment that need to be installed, we’ll have plenty of time to get all that done.”

One of Louisiana’s most infamous acts of violence happened at the Louisiana Capitol. In 1935, three years after the Art Deco building was dedicated, U.S. Senator Huey P. Long, a former Louisiana governor, was assassinated inside.

Five people died on Wednesday, and more than 50 U.S. Capitol Police and D.C. Metro Police officers were injured as a mob of thousands, encouraged by President Donald Trump, pushed over barricades, broke windows and eventually took over the halls of Congress.

In the days following, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, along with House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger all announced their resignations. Sund defended his officers as having “responded valiantly when faced with thousands of individuals involved in violent riotous actions.”

“The (United States Capitol Police) had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities,” Sund said. “But make no mistake — these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior.”

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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