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Circling the wagons to guard the Capitol


© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 8, 2001

They couldn't resist.

Faced with the possibility that they might suddenly be surrounded by a professional police force, some legislators are out to create their own little private cop shop.

For years the Capitol Police, the officers who guard the Capitol and other state buildings, have been a very political police agency. Their ranks have often included relatives and close friends of legislators.

After Sept. 11, Gov. Jeb Bush took action to put the police under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a professional police agency that is responsible for the governor's safety.

Since taking over, FDLE has limited after-hours access to the Capitol, invalidated some of the 15,000 access cards drifting around the state, established real policies and beefed up security throughout the building.

It was too much efficiency to last very long in a place where politicians want a police force that operates more like a banana republic.

House Speaker Tom Feeney wants to create a new Capitol Security Commission. The members would include the House speaker, Senate president, governor and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. They would supervise the police who work in the Capitol and the buildings that connect to it. The remaining state buildings could have real cops.

One version of the bill to create the commission would even limit the jurisdiction of Capitol Police, allowing them to make only felony arrests. That way no one who is important would ever get caught on minor drug or alcohol offenses.

Imagine if you will a Capitol where the House speaker and the Senate president have have their own private police force. Justice would get really interesting. Maybe they'll start settling disputes the old-fashioned way -- with a gun at 30 paces. Or perhaps they could arrest each other.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate President John McKay want the police force to be a part of FDLE so it can operate as a professional police force.

"We have to get it done," Bush said Thursday after noting that legislators failed to pass a bill that would make the transfer to FDLE permanent. "It is appropriate to have a law enforcement agency run the Capitol Police. I think we can work out the concerns."

Rep. Gaston Cantens, R-Miami, sponsored the bill to create the new commission saying legislators don't like to be searched over and over again when they leave the Capitol and return. The House doesn't like all the beefed up security around the Capitol, he says.

I guess all those very important people in the House are way too important to be searched like ordinary folk.

That's what we need -- another commission to run something. And this proposal comes from the folks who say they want less government.

For years the police have reported to the Department of Management Services, a state agency without professional police officers in charge. Some of its officers were professional but others were political appointees who had only to run to the nearest legislator when disciplinary action approached.

But they could be expected to bow and scrape to legislators and cut them a break when someone showed up drunk or disorderly.

The Senate has canceled December committee meetings.

"We've been here enough," McKay said Thursday as the second special session on the budget ended.

In the House, committee meetings that usually last all week will be limited to Dec. 17 and 18. Could it have anything to do with the fact that Feeney has a big fundraiser scheduled for the 18th and needs to attract a crowd of lobbyists bearing gifts?

Nobody expects to do very much legislative business, but you can bet they'll take care of the important task of raising money for next year's election.

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