Utah lawmakers OK increased security after protests, death threats

‘We are living in a new and ... dangerous world,” says one House member of the need for $1 million-plus security expansion.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) One of a dozen protesters carries an upside down flag at the Utah Capitol around noon on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, as beefed-up security guards the building. Lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that would expand security protection for lawmakers, their staff and even candidates who may face threats of violence.

After several members of the body disclosed that they’ve faced death threats while serving in elected office, the Utah House gave final passage Wednesday to a bill that would increase security for lawmakers and their staff.

SB222 would task the Office of Executive Protection with providing security for the Capitol Hill complex and for state officials — including their staff, the governor elect and outgoing public officials — when there is a “demonstrable need or a specifically identified threat to the individual.”

Candidates for an elected state office and their immediate family could also be eligible for protection under the bill during the time frame between the general election and the date when results are finalized.

“Once in a while, we do things that make people mad,” said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy and the bill’s House sponsor. “And sometimes we make people mad enough that they make threats towards us. If those threats rise to the level of being serious and actionable, then even now they have the ability to provide some of that protection for our members. What we don’t have right now is there is no level of protection for our staff.”

Security could involve anything from a notification of a threat to stationing a patrol car at someone’s house, Spendlove said.

The proposal carries a price tag of $1.18 million next year and $680,000 the following year for expanded security, training, and equipment.

The Utah commissioner of public safety, currently Jess Anderson, already has statutory authority to provide protection for elected officials and dignitaries in the state. That “dignitary protection” program is responsible for providing security for the governor and his family, both houses of the Utah Legislature when they are in session, and other visiting dignitaries.

The Tribune recently reported that Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson has had a security detail assigned to her since shortly after the November election based on what law enforcement said was a specific threat.

But Spendlove said that protection is constrained by a requirement that, on a 15 day basis, the department get approval from the House speaker and the Senate president to continue offering security. His bill would allow the public safety commissioner to conduct that review.

Another struggle the bill addresses, he said, is expertise, by mandating training for members of the Office of Executive Protection tasked with security for public officials. It would require the office to conduct threat assessment analyses to make decisions about protection.

The bill, which passed with a 48-20 vote on Wednesday, comes on the heels of a Jan. 6 protest at the state Capitol that occurred the same day an armed mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in what FBI Director Christopher Wray described Tuesday as an act of domestic terrorism.

State security details were dispatched on that day to protect the families of Utah’s members of Congress as a precaution.

Afterward, forty Utah troopers initially assigned to assist with security for President Joe Biden’s inauguration were kept home in light of a planned armed protest at the state Capitol on Jan. 17. That fizzled out after Gov. Spencer Cox declared an emergency and closed the Capitol complex to the public through the first several days of the legislative session.

But Spendlove said there were several staff members who were afraid to come to work on Jan. 6 and said the events of the last few months have made the purpose behind the bill clear.

“We are living in a new and unfortunately dangerous world,” he said. “We need to give our Highway Patrol, our Department of Public Safety, the resources to be able to provide that level of protection that they need to be able to serve us and serve the public.”

As they spoke in support of the bill, several lawmakers shared stories about threats they or their colleagues had received over the years. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he’s needed security twice: once during the 2002 Olympics and again last December, when the New York City Police Department arrested and detained a person who Ray said was making threats against him and his family.

Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said his children are “still quite troubled” after someone vandalized his home just before the legislative session began. Beyond the fear his family has felt, he also worried that reports of threats against lawmakers could prevent people from engaging in the political process and running for office.

“People have said to me, Travis, I was thinking about running against you, but now I’m not going to. Not because I like you, but because I don’t want to face that kind of garbage,” he recounted. “So there’s an element here of ensuring the democratic process.”

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last year that some political candidates have moved to shield their addresses from the public in light of threats and sometimes volatile interactions with people at their homes.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill on Wednesday, noting that rank-and-file members of Congress are not usually afforded security and that he was concerned the bill would provide protections to state lawmakers not afforded to federal elected officials.

“I want to see people safe. I want to see people taken care of,” he said. “But I think there’s a balance here between safety, which is always paramount but also maybe providing levels of protection that we don’t equally distribute among our high ranking elected officials. So I have some concerns with this bill.”

After previously passing unanimously through the Utah Senate, the bill now moves to the governor for his signature or veto.