The California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 30, 2016.
Additional security measures are being put in place at California’s state Capitol in Sacramento after an attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Politics

‘High alert’ at California Capitol as police brace for any inauguration unrest

Law enforcement officials are putting “additional security measures” in place at California’s Capitol in Sacramento amid warnings from the FBI and others that last week’s siege on the U.S. Capitol could be echoed across the country.

The efforts, described as precautionary, were part of an astonishing, nationwide rush by law enforcement to gird statehouses and other government targets against white supremacists and other radicalized supporters of President Trump, who has actively encouraged baseless conspiracy theories challenging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November.

Officials declined to detail the new security measures or disclose whether they had any specific intelligence about planned violence in Sacramento, but said they are boosting their preparedness for problems in the days leading up to Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

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“Any potential threat to the safety of the Assembly is taken very seriously,” said Alisa Buckley, chief sergeant at arms of the California Assembly. “In light of recent armed protests at the U.S. Capitol, additional security measures are being implemented in the Assembly, though we will not be disclosing the nature of those security measures publicly.”

State Senate Sergeant at Arms Katrina Rodriguez said the Senate “keeps close watch on potential challenges and threats to security” and also would be “implementing additional security measures.”

Two state lawmakers — Sens. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) and Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) — also announced plans to introduce legislation that would require state agencies to create new units focused on the white nationalist movement and domestic terrorism.

“We have to respond not just with blustery condemnation, but with a concrete answer to this threat to domestic security,” Stern said in a statement.

Outside the statehouse Monday, the presence of law enforcement was already noticeably greater than in previous days.

Around noon, when an anti-vaccine group was scheduled to protest, dozens of California Highway Patrol officers were scattered in clusters around the grounds. Near the main entrance, walkways that would normally be crowded with legislators, staffers and visitors were blocked with barricades and closely watched by officers in plainclothes, in uniform and mounted on horses.

Only four women turned out for the protest — and were kept on the far side of the barricade.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that “everybody is on high alert, in terms of making sure that everybody is safe” and that “people’s free speech can be advanced, but there’s no violence.”

The governor said he is prepared to call in the National Guard to support law enforcement “as needed” in coming days. A National Guard source familiar with state intelligence said that they don’t currently expect huge numbers of protesters in Sacramento, but that several guard companies are nonetheless ready for deployment.

The California Highway Patrol, which is responsible for protecting the Capitol with backup from local police, said it has “personnel ready to respond to protect state property and ensure public safety as necessary.”

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The precautions reflected a nervousness in law enforcement circles about Trump’s supporters, whom many officials had previously viewed as being pro-law enforcement and therefore less likely than other protesters to challenge police authority. That changed for many when insurrectionists battered U.S. Capitol police officers on their way to storming the halls of Congress last week — injuring dozens of officers and killing one.

Amid their reassessments, law enforcement agencies this week also received a warning from the FBI about armed protests by supporters of Trump arising across the country in the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration.

“Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,” the FBI said, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Another law enforcement source told The Times that the FBI informed police that pro-Trump organizers were trying to get extremists to bust into state capitols after seeing such a call to action circulating on a fringe website, then getting further disseminated via encrypted messages.

Asked about its communications with local law enforcement Monday, the FBI said in a statement that it was supporting its state and local partners with maintaining public safety.

“Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity,” the FBI said. “As we do in the normal course of business, we are gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners.”

The FBI said it “respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights,” and its focus was “not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”

While the security failures that allowed the U.S. Capitol to be breached last week remain under investigation, authorities there — including the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police and the sergeants at arms of the U.S. House and Senate have come under intense scrutiny for not being more prepared. All have resigned.

Questions also have swirled around why National Guard troops were not on standby to assist Capitol Police, and officials in Washington have since given the green light to massive security enhancements in the nation’s capital leading up to Biden’s inauguration — including a hardened perimeter fence around the Capitol and the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to the surrounding area.

Officials in state capitals including Sacramento are seeking to shore up their own vulnerabilities in a similar effort to avoid trouble and not be caught flat-footed. In Lansing, Mich., state officials banned people from openly carrying guns inside the Capitol there. In Madison, Wis., the governor deployed the Wisconsin National Guard to the state Capitol to support police, and windows of the Capitol were boarded up.

Brian Levin, director for the study of hate and extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said state officials would be wise to set up bigger perimeters around their capitols and warn state workers, because there could be “a cascading” of threats down from the federal level as targets like the U.S. Capitol are hardened.

In Sacramento, concern is heightened in part because of the fact that counties just to the north of Sacramento are considered a hotbed of extremist activity.

The state Capitol has been generally closed to the public since last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although limited in-person participation is allowed for hearings or floor sessions. CHP has blocked off the immediate area surrounding the building and limited access to the Capitol grounds.

Since Biden’s election, the Highway Patrol and local Sacramento police have enhanced their presence around the Capitol as pro-Trump protesters and small groups of anti-fascist counter-protesters have broken into fights on a near-weekly basis. Police have closed surrounding streets to through traffic to prevent what has become a regular parade of music-blaring pro-Trump supporters cruising around the Capitol in their vehicles, as well as less frequent but similar events by counter-protesters.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the state would call in the National Guard only after all mutual aid from local agencies is exhausted.

The Sacramento Police Department issued a statement saying that its Criminal Intelligence Unit “continually monitors information regarding potential demonstrations that could occur” within Sacramento city limits, and the department is “coordinating with other local allied law enforcement agencies for any future demonstrations.”

The department assigned more than 200 officers to work a demonstration outside the state Capitol on the same day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress prepared to confirm state electoral college votes in Biden’s favor. The agency reported “physical altercations between two groups of demonstrators” that day, and said it arrested 11 people “related to illegal possession of pepper spray.”

Los Angeles police also made arrests Wednesday as Trump supporters and counter-protesters gathered outside L.A. City Hall and at times broke into fights. City Hall and the LAPD headquarters across the street were heavily guarded.

Capt. Stacy Spell, an LAPD spokesman, said the department “has planned for increased activity during inauguration week” and “will have adequate resources to respond to any situation, maintain order and keep the peace while protecting and serving all members of the community.”

Spell asked anyone who planned to protest in the city in coming days to “do so responsibly and safely.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.