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Opening the door to a discussion on state capitol security and access to “the people’s house”

Heading back to the front door after a guided tour of the Nebraska Capitol.
Kevin Woster
Heading back to the front door after a guided tour of the Nebraska Capitol.

It’s a nondescript door in a muted shade of green flanked by tall, spiky evergreen trees on the south side of the Nebraska State Capitol.

Mary was walking up to it when I called out: “I don’t think that’ll be open.”

She reached out, grabbed the handle, gave it a tug and surprised me by opening the door as she called back: “No, it’s open.”

Then she peeked inside, took a step back, let the door close and hustled off in the direction that three Duffy grandkids — Jane, Sam and Danny — had taken a few seconds earlier.

At a brisk, grandchild’s pace they were heading for the granite steps to the second level and the outdoor promenade that would take them around to the front of the Capitol and the main entrance. But I lingered near the back door, finally grabbing the handle, opening it and walking inside.

The green back door of the Nebraska State Capitol was actually open!
Kevin Woster
The green back door of the Nebraska State Capitol was actually open!

In the dimly lit hallway straight ahead, there were boxes of some kind stacked along a wall, and a woman was walking toward me from the hallway to my right.

“I was surprised this door was open,” I said.

She seemed surprised that I was surprised.

“Sure, all the main-floor doors are open during public hours,” she said, pausing to see if I had more to ask.

“I’m from South Dakota,” I said. “Our Capitol used to be open like this. Now there’s only one open entrance, and at that one you have to go through a metal detector.”

She paused to consider that for a moment, then said she liked the way it is at the Nebraska Capitol.

“It’s the people’s place,” she said. “It should be accessible to the people.”

Hey, where’s the x-ray machine and metal detector?

I thanked the woman for our brief chat, stepped back outside and was thinking about “the people’s place” and accessibility as I walked up the stairs and sauntered around on the promenade to the front door of the Capitol.

There I went inside, again without anyone paying attention to me. At least, I didn’t notice anyone paying attention to me. I’m pretty sure there were cameras about, possibly being monitored. But I wasn’t diverted through a screening room, or directed to send my belongings through an x-ray and step through the frame of a metal detector, all under the watchful eyes of security guards.

That’s what I would have been doing had I been walking into the South Dakota Capitol in Pierre, where security has been tightened during the last few years under the administration of Gov. Kristi Noem.

Changed to make things safer, it’s probably fair to say. Changed for the better? Well, I guess that depends.

Our Capitol is still the people’s place. And the people still have access to it. Pretty good access. But it’s one door, restricted access, unless you’re a state employee or someone else who uses the Capitol regularly and qualifies for a special pass.

I don’t have one of those passes. But I guess they will give you access to to other doors of our state Capitol, instead of just the north door, which I tend to call the back door. That’s where the screening process takes place.

Capitol front door is an inspiring entrance and exit

The back door of our Capitol is just fine. But it’s nothing like the front door, or doors, actually, because there are three double doors opening off the Capitol rotunda and out onto the wide staircase leading down to a sidewalk, a side street, the front lawn and Capitol Avenue beyond.

Mary, Sam, Danny and Jane head for the back side of the Nebraska Capitol, which is the second tallest in the nation.
Kevin Woster
Mary, Sam, Danny and Jane head for the back side of the Nebraska Capitol, which is the second tallest in the nation.

The front steps and doors are an inspiring way to enter and exit the building. And during the years I covered the state Capitol and the Legislature for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the Rapid City Journal, I liked to use the front exit periodically just to be inspired.

It was cool, going up and down those steps, and fun to stand at the top and take a look around. It also was convenient if I was headed to the Anderson or Foss buildings across Capitol Avenue to the south to do an interview or pick something up.

I suppose I used the back door most often, because that’s where most of the parking is and where I parked most often. But I’d pretty regularly park on the west side and use the west door, which I’d also use if I was going to walk downtown for something.

The east door was nice if you wanted to take a quick stroll over to Capitol Lake or stop by the Fighting Stallions sculpture and remember the eight South Dakotans, including Gov. George Mickelson, who died in an airplane crash on April 19, 1993.

Access was easy. Automatic. Relaxed. For anyone.

You could argue, of course, that “anyone” could include someone dangerous. And while there were no incidents around or in our state Capitol that I’m aware of that inspired the tightening of security there, such an incident was and is always a possibility.

Slim, of course, maybe very slim. But possible.

If people were angels, we could toss those metal detectors

That’s the reality that state officials must deal with in protecting the Capitol building and trying to assure the security of the people who work and visit there, said Ian Fury, chief of communications for Gov. Kristi Noem.

“I appreciate your love for our South Dakota State Capitol. We all wish that the world was a better, safer place,” Fury wrote in an email. “As James Madison so wisely wrote, ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary.’ Unfortunately, that is not the world that we live in. So we balance robust public access with common-sense security measures at the state Capitol.”

Fury noted that state Highway Patrol officers had to step in to assure Noem’s safety at an October 2020 campaign event for Donald Trump in Maine. A 58-year-old Bangor man was arrested for brandishing a wooden baton and a knife during an encounter with people in the crowd where Noem was making a campaign stop for Trump.

Fury said there have been “several credible threats and outright stalkerish behavior aimed at the governor and other public officials in recent years.” He said he couldn’t discuss specifics of those threats and that behavior but that they “are real, and they don’t have boundaries.” He contends that the added security isn’t hindering public access to or enjoyment of the state Capitol. He can’t offer past-and-present comparisons on visitor numbers, but says state employees with many years of Capitol experience believe traffic has increased in recent years along with a rise in overall tourism numbers.

“Many of those visitors are folks who have visited state capitols across the nation,” Fury wrote. “These individuals frequently remark that our Capitol is more accessible — and our staff far friendlier — than those in other states.”

Finding a balance between security and access

OK, I have to tell you, I thought the staffers in the Nebraska Capitol — from the woman I met in the hallways to the receptionist in the governor’s office to the guy who led our tour of the Capitol — were every bit as friendly as the South Dakota Capitol employees I’ve known over the years. And I have to say, I can’t imagine there’s any tour of our Capitol that could beat the comprehensive, engaging, history packed tour that we took at the Nebraska Capitol.

During the tour, a stop at the Nebraska Unicameral legislative chamber.
Kevin Woster
During the tour, a stop at the Nebraska Unicameral legislative chamber.
The view out over the city of Lincoln from the tower of the Nebraska State Capitol.
Kevin Woster
The view out over the city of Lincoln from the tower of the Nebraska State Capitol.

If you go there, take the tour.

But back to safety, Fury said he trusts that I would not want “unfettered access to the Capitol for anyone at the cost of the security of elected officials and public servants.” And he believes South Dakota officials have managed to find a balance between access and security is pretty tough for any state to beat.

The security upgrades came at the recommendation of the state Department of Public Safety, Fury said.

“We didn’t want to wait until something terrible happened and wish that we had acted,” he said.

I agree that it would be terrible if something bad happened and we looked back with regret because we didn’t do enough to prevent it. Maybe we can never go back to the open ways of our Capitol past. But why, then, haven’t Nebraska officials limited access to their Capitol to one door and a screening process?

I wondered that aloud in the office of Gov. Jim Pillen, after I finished admiring the huge bronze hog that sits in front of the office receptionist’s desk. Pillen, you see, is a veterinarian, agribusinessman and livestock producer, with a particular affinity for pigs.

No screening room, but “security on speed dial”

The metal hog in his office is called Petunia, a name selected by a 4th-grader as part of a drawing last March from name submissions to the governor’s office.

After admiring Petunia, I noted to the office receptionist — who had welcomed me in when I stuck my head in the door, encouraging me to “look around and take pictures if you want” — that I had expected to see tighter security at the Capitol.

“Oh, we have security on speed dial,” she smiled.

I think security might have been even closer than a phone call away, actually. Two young, vigorous-looking men in sports coats were sitting along the wall to our right, near the open doorway into the office of Pillen’s chief of staff. I have seen similar-looking fellows with our governors many times during recent administrations. They are plain-clothes state troopers, and not to be trifled with.

Like our security officers, the two guys in the Nebraska governor’s office looked like they could confront a problem visitor quickly and efficiently, and probably painfully. I had noticed the two guys standing and chatting discretely nearby when we began our guided tour of the Capitol’s main floor a half hour or so earlier. Then they disappeared.

Tours leave on the hour. Do those alert-looking guys or others like them check out each tour group for possible signs of trouble? Or did they just happen to be out in the hallway chatting nearby when our tour began? Who knows? What I do know is I liked the relaxed accessibility of the place.

They accepted all the marshals’ suggestions except one

Apparently most Nebraskans like it, too. So says Roxanne Smith, tourism director for the Office of the Nebraska Capitol Commission. In an email exchange a few days after I was at the Nebraska Capitol, Smith said that following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995 the Nebraska State Patrol brought in U.S. marshals to do a “security sweep/consultation.”

“We implemented everything they suggested except the metal detector at a single point of access,” she said.

Smith said “the governors and the legislators since have not seen it necessary to shut off access, and many citizens and visitors comment on how wonderful it is to walk freely into the people's house. “

I was one of those visitors, making that comment about the people’s house. And I have to say, I felt a little envious of the Nebraska folks for that access. Not that I envy the Nebraskans their Capitol Building. Oh, it’s plenty cool, and well worth stopping to see. Lots of history and compelling architecture.

But I think our state Capitol is pretty tough to beat. South Dakota doesn’t have regularly scheduled Capitol tours like those in Nebraska, by the way. There’s are self-guided tour brochures at the Capitol and elsewhere. And guided tours can be scheduled.

Our Capitol more than measures up to Nebraska’s, except in height, of course. The Cornhusker state has us beat there, easily. The Nebraska Capitol is 400 feet tall, second only to the 450-foot-tall Capitol of Louisiana, which Gov. Huey Long required to be the highest in the nation.

At 161 feet tall, our state Capitol even falls about 80 feet short of the capitol building in the state just north of ours — you know, the Dakota that isn’t the pheasant-hunting capital of the world. That one.

And while we’re considering North Dakota (a great state, too, pheasant capital or not), what is Capitol security like in our sister state? Basically a mirror image of ours.

Contacted by email, North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Darcy Aberle, the director of security at the North Dakota Capitol, said “we are similar to South Dakota. We have a main entrance open and metal detectors and x-ray machine at that entrance. Other doors may be entered by key card access by employees who have been given access by their agency. “

So, that’s the North and the South of it when it comes to Dakota capitols and their security. Tougher than Nebraska.

And Fury contends that capitol security in most states is a lot more like South Dakota and North Dakota than it is like Nebraska.

That could be true. Probably is. And I suppose it makes sense to err on the side of safety rather than access.

Still, it sure was nice to just reach out, open that green door and stroll inside.

Just like the good old days back in Pierre.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.