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False Alarm Reignites Debate Over Capitol Security

A report of a man with a gun made national news and paralyzed the heart of state government for seven hours Wednesday, but turned out to be case of mistaken identity.

Even as memories of the state police helicopter hovering over the gold dome start to fade, however, the incident has reignited a long-simmering debate about Capitol security.

Gov. John G. Rowland said the close call demonstrated - again - the need for better protection, including metal detectors and inspection of all packages carried into the historic building.

"It's easier to get into the state Capitol than it is to get into your local library and get out with a book," Rowland complained Thursday, a day after the gun scare virtually shut down the Capitol and Legislative Office Building.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin Sullivan, D-West Hartford, agrees with Rowland's call for metal detectors. But he said the police response showed the need for better procedures to handle future threats.

"At certain points ... I was more worried about people being decapitated by a rotor blade of a helicopter landing on the (Capitol) lawn than the safety of the parking garage," Sullivan said.

Two women in the LOB cafeteria told police they saw a man dressed in dark clothes on the top level of the parking garage with what one said looked like a machine gun.

The reports, which came on the first day of the legislative session and minutes after Rowland finished his State of the State speech, led police to lock down portions of the Capitol and LOB.

The "gunman" turned out to be videographer Neal Thomassen, who was using a handheld camera to take exterior shots of the Capitol for a cable access show hosted by a state teachers' union.

Rowland called the police response appropriate in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said the incident reinforced a message he has been preaching for nearly two years: Security at the Capitol needs to be beefed up.

Rowland rejected an argument, frequently made by the legislative leaders, that as the "people's building" the Capitol must remain accessible to the public.

"Let me tell you, in this new world we live in, people are undressing in airports, they are not flying over nuclear facilities, they can't get into a courthouse without going through metal detectors," Rowland said.

Far from being surprised or put off by metal detectors, the public would feel safer if the building were more secure, the governor said.

"Most people are surprised that they don't have to walk through metal detectors to come to the Connecticut State Capitol," he said.

The U.S. Capitol has metal detectors, as do many state buildings, including the lottery headquarters in New Britain, Rowland said.

Rowland, whose office is on the second floor, called the Capitol "a bit of an icon" and one of the state's top potential targets.

"People know what the Capitol is. It's got the gold on the dome," he said. "If someone wants to do harm ... (or) is wacky enough to try to do something, they are coming here."

Many lawmakers agree. Within hours of the incident, Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, submitted a bill to require metal detectors at all entrances to the Capitol and LOB.

"Unfortunately we live in a difficult time, when we can no longer take security for granted," said Boucher, who expects her bill to be raised by the Public Safety Committee later this month.

Of course, no law is needed to install metal detectors or do other security improvements at the Capitol. Legislative leaders, as custodians of the building, have that power on their own.

While Sullivan supports metal detectors, others aren't so sure. House Speaker Moira Lyons, D-Stamford, and House Minority Leader Robert Ward, R-North Branford, say metal detectors could deter attendance at public hearings and other events.

A leadership committee is studying the issue and is expected to issue a report before the session ends May 8.

In the meantime, lawmakers and Capitol Police Chief William Morgan point to improvements already made in recent months. All but two entrances to the Capitol are now closed, and all remaining entrances to the complex are guarded by retired state troopers. Capitol employees, including those in the executive branch and the news media, must wear identification badges.

Rowland called that a good start, but complained that troopers are inconsistent in stopping visitors and rarely inspect packages.

Even with metal detectors, the building would not be fail-safe. Robert Crook, a lobbyist for gun owners, offered a disquieting thought after Wednesday's false alarm.

"The potential for some wacko to come up here with a firearm is always there," Crook said.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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