Sweeney: State House security needs to be strengthened

Senate president cites events in Washington last week and a Dec. 2019 rally in Trenton to show potential risk for state officials
Credit: Peter Miller via Flickr
New Jersey State House

As state officials stress publicly that they are prepared for a potential demonstration of armed protestors in Trenton on Sunday, the leader of the state Senate said it is past time to beef up security at the State House, noting that a December 2019 rally that drew thousands scared lawmakers.

“We really have to evaluate our security situation at the Capitol,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in an online meeting Wednesday with the staff of NJ Spotlight News. “Before we shut down the State House, the governor’s office is on the first floor. It’s got regular glass windows … If you knew the governor was there, you could throw a hand grenade in, you could shoot.

“Because we’re the society that we are — Americans believe in laws for the most part — we never had to worry about that before,” he added. “Now we have to worry because we have domestic terrorists. We saw that in Washington.”

Sweeney was referring to last Wednesday’s riot that saw hundreds breach the U.S. Capitol and five left dead, including a Capitol police officer who was a New Jersey native. The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to impeach President Donald Trump, making him the first president in history to be impeached twice, citing his calling people to Washington and spurring them on prior to the riot.

In that 2019 demonstration by more than 1,000 people opposed to universal vaccination of children, protestors clogged the halls of the State House Annex and crowds outside banged on windows of the Senate chamber. Sweeney said that event underscored the need for re-evaluating security.

“They scared a lot of people,” he said. “There weren’t enough State Police. So we have to evaluate those things because we really did experience the takeover of the Capitol and it was during those anti-vaccine marches. In fact, I was listening on the radio this morning — one of the leaders of the group bragging on how successful they can be. We can’t let them win, is the bottom line.”

Renovations underway at State House

It’s unclear what specific security upgrades may be part of the $300 million renovation project of the State House, the original portion of which was built in 1792. The work began in 2017 and was expected to be completed sometime this year.

Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said that State Police have “increased security at the State House” in response to the riot in Washington.

Sweeney said he does not know what to expect out of any march in Trenton Sunday, when lawmakers will not be in session, but added he expected to get a briefing on the situation Thursday.

Jared Maples, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security, told NJ Spotlight News Wednesday that it’s unclear who might show up in the state capital and how large a contingent it might be.

“There has been a lot of chatter, but we don’t have a specific or credible threat against New Jersey or our State House at this point, but we are dedicating the full resources available to make sure violence doesn’t occur here,” he said.

During a briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy said state officials are “preparing for the worst and hoping for the best” on Sunday, when there has been a call for “peaceful armed demonstrations” in every state capital. He added that the state was “erring on the side of over-preparing, as opposed to under-preparing, which is what I think any of us would want in the state.”

NJ Guard in DC

Murphy sent a small contingent of State Police and 500 members of the state National Guard to Washington in the wake of the riot but said that does not impair law enforcement’s ability to keep the state secure.

“We cannot deal with rightful concerns and security issues in Washington at the expense of New Jersey security. That’s just not going to happen,” Murphy said. “The numbers that are down there do not take away from our ability to do the proper protection and security in New Jersey.”

State Police Supt. Col. Pat Callahan echoed that statement, saying Interim Adjutant General Col. Lisa J. Hou assured him, “without getting into specifics of numbers that we will have certainly sufficient numbers of National Guard members.” According to the website of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, New Jersey has more than 8,400 soldiers and airmen in its guard units.

Sunday’s demonstration was advertised on a website called Tree of Liberty that stated it was the online home of the far-right Boogaloo movement. That site is now unavailable, apparently taken down by the Montreal-based data center that had been hosting it.

While it is unclear who might show up in Trenton on Sunday, Maples said at least three national organizations with a presence in New Jersey were at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He said white supremacy groups, anti-government organizations and anarchists pose the greatest threat during the current climate.

“A lot of the groups are taking advantage of the chaos, of the discontent,” Maples said. “It’s something we are really worried about and focused on.”