Inside Report: Project beefs up Capitol security

Walk past the temporary, chain-link fence surrounding the Louisiana Capitol, and you may be surprised to spot a white sign with bright red lettering: “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.”

The fence, the orange cones, the “DANGER” signs …

The State Capitol might look more like a construction zone or a prison, rather than one of Baton Rouge’s most popular tourist attractions.

It’s all part of an effort to make the Capitol here more secure.

In a recent Advocate article, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, touted Louisiana’s State Capitol as “the most visited Capitol in the United States,” which is not true.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said in a May news release that the Capitol Complex there draws more than a million guests each year.

Though less scientific, the National Conference of State Legislatures polled Capitols a few years ago and asked how many visitors they receive each year. California reported more than half a million visitors, as did Georgia.

And even in Montgomery, Alabama, a recent audit from the state Department of Examiners of Public Accounts found 124,018 people visited the Capitol there in 2013.

By contrast, Louisiana’s Capitol gets about 113,000 visitors a year, based on data compiled by state staff for the Downtown Development District.

That’s not to say security isn’t a concern.

The Louisiana Capitol, built in the early 1930s, has been the site of an assassination and a bomb explosion.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as well as a 2010 shooting at the Texas Capitol and other high-profile incidences targeting elected officials, have prompted many states to review their security policies, which tend to vary widely from state to state.

Earlier this year, Louisiana legislators debated whether lawmakers with concealed weapons permits should be allowed to carry guns in the Capitol.

The state Senate signed off on the proposals, but the House rejected the idea.

Several states allow lawmakers or visitors to carry their guns, but it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

In Missouri, an aide to the state House speaker forgot his loaded Kahr CM9 9mm pistol in a stall in one of the Capitol’s public restrooms. It was returned to him a few hours later when a secretary called the police to report the lost weapon.

And Kentucky state Rep. Leslie Combs accidentally fired her Ruger 380 semi-automatic handgun while unloading it in her office in that state’s Capitol Annex earlier this year, according to local reports. No one was injured.

In Missouri, the most recent state Capitol that I covered and where legislators could carry guns if they had concealed weapons permits, no one had to pass through metal detectors, but security cameras were prevalent. Vehicle access around the circa-1917 Capitol building was generally unlimited, though there was a guard tower too keep an eye out for the underground parking garage.

In Mississippi, another state Capitol that I’ve covered, people had to go through metal detectors, much like they do here. Again, driving around the Capitol, which was built in 1903, remains generally unhindered.

Louisiana’s latest $4.37 million project will take part of the parking lot in front of the Capitol building to create a pedestrian plaza between the foot of the steps that have the names of states chiseled on them and the sunken formal garden. Four security posts will be installed, and parking will be controlled around the building for much of the year.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblogs.