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As lawmakers from the House and Senate pass bills across the rotunda, members of the public are also passing through new security checkpoints installed at the Capitol for the 2016 session.
The security points are located at two places in the main Capitol building: the wheelchair accessible entrances of the east and west wings. Assistant Secretary for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, Larry Messina, said discussions of increased security have been in the works for nearly 15 years.
“The most recent round of discussions started after the 2015 Legislative Session,” Messina said. “We had representatives from all three branches [of government] in that discussion, and it culminated in the decision to operate directed public access points in the building.”
Members of the public wanting to visit the statehouse this session must enter through the checkpoints. Security officials say those coming to Charleston should use common sense: budget their time accordingly to get through security and leave any prohibited items at home. Those include things like firearms, knives, and pepper spray.
Messina said this security is designed to balance the safety of the public with their right to easy and efficient access to government.
“To a degree, it’s somewhat like what you’d encounter if you travel by air at an airport,” Messina said. “You walk through a magnetometer. The items in your pockets are put in bins to be inspected or go through an x-ray machine and your baggage goes through an x-ray machine.”
Past the detectors, security measures have also been tightened within the building. Anyone wishing to sit in the President’s Gallery above the Senate must get a free ticket from the office of Clark Barnes, the Senate Clerk.
“There’s no hard-and-fast rule of who sits here, but you do have to have permission,” Barnes said. “The doorkeeper will not allow folks without a ticket to sit in this gallery. In this day and age, we just don’t have the luxury of having open buildings. We have a lot of employees here, a lot of guests here and we are very interested in keeping our people safe, keeping the people to come to visit us safe.”
The overall personnel cost for the new Capitol security is an estimated $732,000 for one year.
Capitol Police Sergeant, Mark Swecker, said security is essential for keeping legislation running smoothly.
“We’re able to ease the minds of the other employees,” Swecker said. “Rather than worrying about who may be just coming in, they know that they have been checked. It just gives them more of a peace of mind, where they can do their jobs and not have to have all the ancillary issues associated with it.”
After session, the both the east and west wing Capitol security checkpoint will remain in place year-round.