After Tucson: Revisiting Town Hall Meeting Security Measures

January 11th, 2011

In the wake of the shooting that occurred on January 8 at an Arizona Safeway, legislators across the country are left questioning their current security measures when holding public town hall meetings. The alleged shooter in custody targeted United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed a federal Judge who was among the six people killed and 13 injured.

“Every member of Congress gets threats,” said Sean Brown, a spokesman for Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tx.) “The question is: ‘Is it credible?’ Now, all will be taken more seriously.”

That same tone has resonated here in Maryland, where State legislators convened in the General Assembly earlier this month, and are expected to meet with constituents regularly throughout the 90-day session in an opportunity to provide a forum for public political discourse.

I spoke with State Senator Kathy Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) after the shooting, and she says she does not expect much to change from how she has interacted with her constituents in the past. In our conversation, Klausmeier noted, “We cannot allow this to severely impact our involvement in our communities. As a representative, it’s critical to my job to regularly meet with the people in my district, whether in my office in Annapolis, an Elementary School in Perry Hall, or at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Parkville.”

While legislators and their staff meet to discuss tighter security precautions, the biggest impact this may have could be on the constituents themselves. While the gunman’s motivation remained unclear, the act of violence that killed six and wounded Giffords and 13 others at the town hall event in Tucson intensified the security concerns of citizens who fear disruptions in their efforts to meet with their legislators in a public forum.

One result could be a call to conduct more town hall meetings at civic buildings that have security on site as part of their normal operations. This could allow the existing security infrastructure that is in place to seamlessly mesh with the scheduled event. Many town hall meetings are held at the local public library. If you attended the meeting, and had to walk through a metal detector and/or a physical pat-down, you may feel a bit put-off by being at such a normal local place and having to run through the gauntlet as if you were in an airport. However, if you were to walk into a local government building, chances are, you would expect this type of security measure to be in place.

Finally, it is incumbent upon the elected official and his or her staff to reach out to local law enforcement, and notify them if they feel security or additional security may be required at a public event, such as one that will feature charged topics on the agenda. At a time when political rhetoric is considered to be toxic by many, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, (D-Mo.) believes that, “Members of Congress either need to turn down the volume, begin to try to exercise a high level of civility, or this darkness will never be overcome with light.”

This blog response to legislative security measures in no way is meant to take away from the other victims and their families. The tragedy is immeasurable and words inadequate.

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