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On the Capitol Lawn, it's Safety First

by Manny Fernandez, Washington Post

Metal detectors and police searches will greet those attending the national Memorial Day concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Sunday, the first large-scale annual holiday event in Washington to undergo a security transformation wrought by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Capitol police officials announced yesterday that they are implementing a number of security measures for the 8 p.m. concert, one of the area's most popular family outings during the Memorial Day weekend.

Gone are the days when families could wander onto the Capitol lawn from all directions, hold space for latecomers and meander back and forth without raising an eyebrow from law enforcement.

Instead, the free event, nationally televised on PBS, will take place within a fenced-in perimeter on the Capitol lawn monitored by a significant uniformed police presence. All those attending will pass through metal detectors, and packages -- including coolers, picnic baskets and purses -- will be hand-searched by Capitol police.

At a news conference yesterday, a Capitol police spokesman said the security changes were a general precaution in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and not sparked by a specific threat.

"Prior to September 11, people enjoyed a high level of access to the Capitol, the House and Senate office buildings and special events on the West Lawn," Lt. Dan Nichols said. "We have to redefine that access and redefine what is considered normal now at the Capitol complex."

Capitol police officials have been reevaluating how they conduct security at major Capitol events and concerts in the wake of the terrorist hijackings and in the face of repeated warnings from the Bush administration that terrorists could strike again.

Nichols said two other popular summer events at the Capitol -- the Labor Day and Fourth of July festivities -- will follow some of the same security measures as the Memorial Day concert. Police officials will reexamine the procedures after this weekend's concert to see if adjustments are needed, he said.

"Our goal is not to make the Capitol complex an armed fortress," Nichols said. "But what we must do is take reasonable and prudent precautions to ensure the safety and security of those who work and visit within our jurisdiction."

Organizers of the event said the precautions are not expected to hinder attendance or detract from the enjoyment of spectators. "I think it's great," said Jim Fisher, the event's coordinating producer. "I think they're going the extra mile to ensure people's safety."

Nichols said he hoped the measures encourage, not discourage, attendance. "They will know we've taken positive action to ensure their safety and security," he said.

Tens of thousands are expected at the event. Concertgoers bearing blankets and umbrellas, food and beverages, have flocked to the lawn in large numbers on the eve of the national holiday in years past to take in the spectacle. The 90-minute performance blends music with dramatic readings and visuals, all part of a patriotic tribute to those who have fought and died in U.S. wars.

This year, organizers are focusing the tribute on Americans serving in the war against terrorism as well as on the victims and heroes of the Sept. 11 attacks. In addition, a tribute will mark the 60th anniversary of the Bataan Death March during World War II.

The program, sponsored by Congress and put on by D.C.-based television producer Jerry Colbert, will include music performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Erich Kunzel. Numerous stars of film, theater and television will also make appearances, including actors Tony Danza and Charles Durning as well as Tony Award-winner Heather Headley. The group Chicago will also perform, as will the singing New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez.

The U.S. Capitol Police Board adopted the security recommendations of Capitol Police officials. The board is the policymaking body for security and law enforcement issues for Congress.

Other security measures on Sunday include restricting the public's access to the lawn before 2:30 p.m., a change in previous years for those who went to the event early to stake out a prime viewing spot. Visitors will gain access to the lawn through one of four entry points.

The west steps of the Capitol, which have been closed since the terrorist attacks, will be available for seating. Parts of nearby streets, including a section of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, will be closed.

Nichols encouraged those planning to attend to bring plenty of water and refreshments and to come expecting warm weather. Open containers of alcohol are not permitted.

Most of the same security precautions will be in place for tomorrow evening's rehearsal on the West Lawn, which is open to the public beginning at 2:30 p.m.

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