Adventures in Bureaucracy, Capitol Security Division

“Bureaucracy” is usually a pejorative term meaning excessive complication and expense, especially in the public sector. That’s one side of it, for sure. On the other hand, the public’s business must inevitably involve some level of bureaucracy.

Take, for example, security in Montpelier’s Capitol Complex. The map above shows it almost exactly. The borders, more or less, are the Winooski River in the south, Bailey Avenue on the west, Terrace Street and somewhere behind the Statehouse on the north, and Governor Aiken Street/Taylor Street to the east. It’s a mix of state buildings, privately owned buildings, lawns and parking lots. The state properties include all three branches of government plus offices for statewide elected officials.

Security in the area involves numerous entities, including the Capitol Police, the Department of Buildings and General Services, the judiciary’s security team, the Montpelier Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s office, and the Vermont State Police.

That’s a lot of bureaucracies, and they need seamless coordination to provide effective security. This was the subject of a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Institutions Committee which, frankly, was bone-dry at times — but nonetheless crucial, if we’re to have the best security in and around the Capitol.

Which has become much more urgent in recent years, with frequent demonstrations in and around the Statehouse and the threat of potentially violent protests around President Biden’s election and inauguration.

Security protocols for the complex are laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding involving the Capitol Police, BGS and judicial branch security. The most recent version was crafted in 2016, and committee chair Joe Benning believes there’s a pressing need to “rebuild [the MOU] from scratch.” He wants to come up with a draft MOU by the end of this month.

The basic “who’s responsible for what” goes like this. The Sergeant at Arms and Capitol Police take care of business inside the Statehouse. Judiciary security handles the Supreme Court building. BGS is responsible for everything else in the complex. Other police agencies are there when needed.

There was talk of expanding the MOU to include the city or state police or the sheriff, but that was ruled out because (a) the three parties in the MOU are laid out in state law, so adding new parties would mean rewriting the law*, and (b) the outside agencies didn’t really want to get involved.

*Sen. Benning expressed willingness to tackle a rewrite, but eventually all agreed that it wasn’t necessary.

All parties agreed that security has generally been effective without a strict process. “We have good relations with everyone involved in response,” said Maj. Jim Whitcomb of the State Police.

Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete echoed the sentiment. “We come anything we’re needed,” he said. “My only interest ins in safety. We don’t have to be in charge; we just need to know the parameters of our involvement.”

Sen. Dick Mazza expressed concern about fixing something that ain’t broke. “The current system seems to be working well,” he said. “I don’t want to mess it up.”

Benning hinted at “a disagreement that came to my attention.” He wouldn’t specify, except to say that it involved parties present in the hearing. So maybe the ardent singing of “Kumbaya” was a bit overblown. Or maybe not. But a security document drawn up in 2016 is likely out of date in some respects.

“The players have played well over the years,” said Robert Schell, security director for the Vermont Judiciary. But he added that all parties “need to address 2021 issues. They’ve dramatically changed over the years I’ve been involved.”

Drafters of the new MOU will have to provide a bureaucratic structure for Capitol security without limiting the somewhat free-flowing nature of handling major incidents. One thing’s for sure: There will be more events to police.

“We’re still in for quite a ride with regard to incidents at the Statehouse,” said Capitol police chief Matthew Romei. “[Montpelier] Chief [Brian] Peete and I have been out there every weekend for a month.”


1 thought on “Adventures in Bureaucracy, Capitol Security Division

  1. David Ellenbogen

    Hi John — Thanks for covering this. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that ours is the only statehouse in the nation – or so I’m told – that doesn’t require visitors to walk through a metal detector. I wonder how long that will remain the case. Senator Mazza saying that “The current system seems to be working well” ignores the potential for trouble in the future, based on a good record in the past. He’s planning on closing the barn door after the horse gets out.


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