More Cops Coming to S.C. State House?

January 27, 2014

Investigative Reports

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SC State HouseAlthough S.C. taxpayers already provide armed police officers on the State House grounds – in addition to separate security staffs for House and Senate members – lawmakers are once again proposing the creation of a “Capitol Police Force.”

The legislation (H. 4519), filed last week by Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, is virtually identical to a failed 2009 bill sponsored by then-Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, who in 2012 became the lieutenant governor with the resignation of Ken Ard.

The same year he became the lieutenant governor, McConnell, whose office is located on the east wing of the State House, convinced lawmakers to give him a four-member security team made up of sworn agents of the State Law Enforcement Division – the state’s lead investigative law enforcement agency.

GOP Gov. Nikki Haley, whose office is located on the State House’s west wing, has her own security detail made up of SLED agents and officers from the state departments of Public Safety and Natural Resources.

Contacted Friday by The Nerve, Pitts, a retired Greenville police officer, said he spoke several months ago with McConnell about the latest bill, which would create the position of “Chief of the Capitol Police Force.”

“When you look at the number of school kids who come across our grounds, if you had an active shooter or an active threat … that could create a heck of a problem,” Pitts said, adding that different groups of all ages routinely visit the State House, especially when the Legislature is in session.

Pitts said he believes in emergency situations on the State House grounds, where roughly 2,000 employees work, a “Capitol Police Force” chief could better coordinate responses among armed state Bureau of Protective Services officers assigned to the State House area, including the S.C. Supreme Court across the street from the Capitol, and the House and Senate sergeant-at-arms staffs, which provide security for lawmakers at the State House and at chamber office buildings.

“I don’t see the need for increasing security at this point in time,” Pitts said. “What I do see a need is to streamline and make much more efficient the response and bring that security personnel under one command.”

Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York and one of 22 co-sponsors of the bill, offered a similar explanation when contacted Saturday by The Nerve.

“In a crisis, you don’t want management by committee,” said Pope, the former longtime solicitor of York and Union counties.

But as with McConnell’s original bill version, Pitts’ legislation would create more than just the police chief’s position. The bill, for example, would allow the new chief to “employ those deputy officers and other employees as necessary to carry out the provisions of this chapter.”

In addition, the bill, copying the language of the McConnell-sponsored legislation, would create the position of “Marshal of the Supreme Court,” a person appointed by the Supreme Court who would be responsible for overseeing security at the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals buildings, and would have the authority to hire additional security staff.

When informed of those personnel provisions by The Nerve, Pope, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, replied, “Perhaps when it comes through Judiciary, we need to address those issues.”

Copying D.C.

Under the bill, the “Capitol Police Force” is officially defined as a combination of the new police chief and supporting staff, the House and Senate sergeant-at-arms and their staffs, and the new Supreme Court “marshal” and supporting staff.

The new police chief would be appointed by the “Capitol Police Force Committee,” made up of three senators appointed by the Senate president pro tempore, three House members appointed by the House speaker and three members appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice. Besides setting the salaries of the chief and staff, the committee also would “promulgate regulations pertaining to its areas of responsibility,” according to the bill.

Contacted Sunday, Richland County Rep. Todd Rutherford, one of two Democrats to co-sponsor the bill, told The Nerve he was “totally against” earlier plans to build a new State House security system featuring gated guard stations for the Capitol complex underground parking garage, which cost more than $6 million, according to a WIS-TV report in May.

But Rutherford, a House Judiciary Committee member, said he supports Pitts’ bill, noting, “If we’re going to do it, we need to do it the same way we do it in (Washington) D.C. with the Capitol Police Force.”

Pitts also cited the nation’s capitol police force as a model for the State House security team.

Rutherford said he would expect that if the bill becomes law, the total number of officers assigned to the State House grounds would remain roughly the same, explaining that the officers with the Bureau of Protective Services (BPS) – a division of the S.C. Department of Public Safety (DPS) – would be replaced by the “Capitol Police Force.” The bill calls for all State House duties currently assigned to DPS and BPS personnel to be “devolved upon the Capitol Police Force.”

“The only reason they’re there now is to make sure the security system is working correctly, and most of the time it does not,” Rutherford said, adding, “A lot of the times, the gates don’t work.”

The Nerve on Friday sent written questions to DPS seeking comment on Pitts’ bill but received no response before publication of this story.

According to DPS’ website, the State House Patrol Division of the Bureau of Protective Services “monitors buildings and grounds of the Capitol Complex area 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and also “patrols within the Richland and Lexington county area at many state buildings/ facilities, including the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.”

Real Security Threat?

McConnell’s bill passed the Senate in 2009 but stalled in the House. In a backup move, lawmakers approved creating the “Capitol Police Force” through state budget provisos and appropriated more than $1.9 million for the new agency, though the plan died after public outcry and strongly worded vetoes from then-Gov. Mark Sanford.

Pitts said Friday the estimated taxpayer cost under his bill would be about $100,000, though he added that would cover only the salary of a “Capitol Police Force” chief.

Pitts said McConnell’s 2009 bill was based on a national study by the federal government “showing weaknesses in security on state house grounds.” He said McConnell showed him the study, though he added he didn’t have a copy of it when asked by The Nerve.

McConnell didn’t return phone or written messages Friday from The Nerve seeking comment.

Asked if state lawmakers needed additional protection with the creation of a “Capitol Police Force,” Pitts replied that isn’t the intent of his bill, noting, “It is simply to provide security for that public that’s on the State House grounds.”

Pitts said under his bill, the new police chief wouldn’t have authority over how the House and Senate sergeant-at-arms provide security for their respective chambers.

State law allows lawmakers and other people with concealed weapons permits who are authorized to park on the State House grounds or in the parking garage below to have a firearm on the premises, though it has to be locked away in the person’s vehicle.

Pitts’ bill also would require the director of the state Budget and Control Board’s General Services Division to “consult” with the “Capitol Police Force” chief “regarding security issues before authorizing the use of or the placement of restrictions on the use of the State House lobbies, steps, grounds, or public buildings and grounds on the capitol grounds.”

Asked if that meant placing more restrictions on public protests at the State House, Pitts replied, “This is in no way a move to keep the public from accessing property they own.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Following The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.