3:50am

Sun February 6, 2011
National Security

Constituents Welcomed — With A Little Extra Security

If you've visited your representative in Congress this week or gone to a constituent event to make your voice heard, you may have noticed an extra policeman in the corner, a squad car outside, or maybe just a congressional staffer keeping an eye on the crowd.

Lawmakers are changing their security procedures in response to the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at an event in Tucson, Ariz., last month. It's made many of them think hard about the balance between open interaction with their constituents and keeping themselves safe.

On an icy night, constituents of newly elected Maryland Republican Andy Harris are out to celebrate the opening of his first office in the district.

Milling around in the crowd is a local county sheriff. Just outside, a police officer sits in his squad car, watching the cars and trucks that carry people to the event. Harris says he took extra security precautions for the event.

"When you're out in [a] public place, it makes sense to make sure that local law enforcement is informed, to make sure that you've consulted with them to see if any additional measures need to be taken," Harris says. "I think that's what we're going to see members do."

That's the No. 1 tip congressional law enforcement had for lawmakers after the shooting in Tucson: Make sure the local police know about your event — because they have a better idea of the local threats than the federal agencies do.

A Closer Watch On 'Crazy Joe'

The sheriff in the crowd is Dallas Pope of Maryland's Talbot County. He says local police, too, are thinking a little differently after the shooting.

"I think we're more attuned to some of the minor issues that may, in the past, have been mere discussion or talk, whereas now we're looking at it as a potential security threat, when someone such as a congressman is visiting," Pope says.

Previously, a constituent getting angry and aggressive with a congressman at an open event might have been seen as a minor issue. Pope says that's not uncommon.

"Sometimes the public forums, with the old 'open mic,' generate a lot of interesting people wanting to be heard, and thus we need to be involved," he says.

That's very important, says Terrance Gainer, former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police who now serves as the Senate sergeant at arms, responsible for the security of senators. Gainer says that in just about every district across the country, there are people who come to lawmakers' events who are a little off — and the staff has to deal with it.

"Heretofore, they might have said, 'Oh that's Crazy Joe,' or 'That's just Sally,'" Gainer says. "Now they're saying, 'Should I be more concerned about that?'"

Connecting The Dots With The Tucson Shooting Suspect

Part of what's making Gainer and others think more about this is Jared Loughner, the suspect in the Tucson shooting. Loughner is reported to have held a grudge against Giffords, sparked by the events at a constituent event in the summer of 2007. In the open forum, Loughner reportedly asked the congresswoman, "What is government if words have no meaning?" Giffords brushed him off and went to the next question.

Gainer says a little thing like that may not be criminal, but it may be a "dot" — those bits of information that don't seem to get connected very often.

Gainer says police can't connect the dots if they don't get them in the first place. They're asking congressional staff to report those little scuffles or odd things that happen, so they can try to prevent larger problems later.

There's another side to the elevated awareness, too; the possibility that lawmakers could have fewer of these events — or interact with constituents in public less often. Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz says there's a fine balance.

"I worry that, in even using a security pretense, a law enforcement presence more so than we have before, that I might seem less approachable," she says.

She's concerned she might lose something absolutely necessary to her job: direct, open and frequent contact with her constituents. If lawmakers don't have that, she says, the word "representative" loses its meaning. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.