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Lapses persist for Capitol Hill panic buttons two years after insurrection

The absence of duress buttons from some offices, including that of Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, raised urgent questions two years ago about a key layer of Capitol security.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/file

WASHINGTON — After Jan. 6, 2021, when several members of Congress reported the chilling detail that they didn’t have functioning panic buttons in their offices, Representative Jahana Hayes put a sticky note on her desk with a reminder to confirm that her own was there.

On Jan. 11 of this year, as she unpacked her things three weeks after moving into a new office, she found that simple note — “check duress button” — and realized she did not have one.

Panic buttons, or duress alarms, are a network of hidden triggers that the Globe is not describing in detail for security purposes. They are installed and responded to by the United States Capitol Police, and are a backstop for members or staffers when calling for help over the phone is not possible. Their absence from some offices, including that of Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, raised urgent questions two years ago about a key layer of Capitol security. Yet multiple members still find themselves without them, sometimes for weeks at a time, according to a Globe investigation, leaving some on Capitol Hill unsettled as Congress opens back up to the general public.

“There were no duress buttons in our office for the second anniversary [of Jan. 6],” said a senior congressional aide in another office. “That’s something that probably gives people pause” about their security.

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Overall, at least 13 offices were missing one or more of their duress alarms in the opening weeks of the 118th Congress, the Globe found through dozens of interviews with members and staff, with their installation lagging as members moved offices or changed furniture. While most of those buttons have since been installed as of Monday, according to the Globe’s reporting, the weeks-long delays represent a substantial gap in coverage at a moment when the political environment is so heated it has often tipped into violence, with lawmakers facing a historic barrage of threats. And it suggests that promised improvements to an opaque and disjointed system have not been sufficient even after its lapses drew intense scrutiny because of the insurrection.

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The issues with the duress buttons prompted Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, a Democrat who at the time of the attack chaired a committee that oversees the Capitol’s police force, to ask her staff to make it clear the problem needed to be fixed, she said.

“I became immediately concerned and asked committee staff to instruct the US Capitol Police to make sure it does not happen again,” said Lofgren.

A Democratic aide to that panel, called the Committee on House Administration, said it verbally directed Capitol Police to proactively install two duress alarms in each office before the beginning of this Congress. That they apparently did not carry out such a directive, as discovered by the Globe, has drawn bipartisan condemnation.

“Ensuring that every member, staffer, and visitor in the House is safe is of the utmost importance, which is why USCP was instructed to proactively install two duress buttons in each office prior to the start of the 118th Congress,” said a senior Republican House aide. “It is unacceptable that Capitol Police dropped the ball and there needs to be continued oversight of their processes.”

A security official on Capitol Hill disputed the claim that the Capitol Police were given that instruction, saying instead that the directive was for new members’ offices. Still, they said that, in response to the Globe’s reporting, the Capitol Police were going office by office to “remind people of ALL the security options at their disposal.”

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Removing buttons during office moves and replacing them in a new location is standard procedure, because a member’s system has to be set up anew each time they change rooms. Hayes’s button was removed when she moved at the end of last year but her new button did not immediately arrive, leaving her office without that layer of protection for weeks. She requested and received a replacement the day she realized it was missing, and with an eye toward the security concerns lawmakers face daily, went a step further, texting some of her colleagues to check on their buttons, too.

In addition to the findings from this Congress, the Globe also discovered that the problem of missing duress alarms during the insurrection actually ran deeper than previously known, with at least five more members, beyond the three who spoke publicly at the time, also lacking functioning alarms as an armed mob descended on their workplace.

“I was like, where is this panic button? And do I have one?” said Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia, recalling her thinking at that time. It turned out that she did not.

The Globe sent detailed questions to entities involved in moves across the Hill, including the Capitol Police. The police declined to answer most of those questions. Asked why duress alarms are not automatically installed in every congressional office before the start of a new Congress, they described the process as unwieldy and said it requires the “combined effort” of both the police and “congressional stakeholders.”

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“Ahead of a new Congress, furniture and offices are quickly moved around, sometimes unannounced, and our teams are tasked with tracking the moves of hundreds of offices around the campus in order to install any safety equipment that may be requested by Member offices. There have only been a couple of instances that we are aware of where desired security measures were not installed in an expeditious manner,” the Capitol Police said in a statement to the Globe.

“Thankfully there are redundancies in place to quickly summon help and our officers are always just steps away as part of the department’s layered security approach,” the department added.

Yet at least three offices said that even after they had requested duress alarms from various agencies involved in office moves, there was a lag of days before they got them. And some offices reported confusion and delays as they waited for buttons, and a lack of understanding as to why police didn’t proactively install them, particularly since the police remove them from old offices themselves and would have the ability to know which offices would need new ones.

“We didn’t have to ask for them to be picked up,” said a congressional aide responsible for coordinating their office move. “Why would we have to ask for them to be reinstalled?”

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The Globe’s reporting, based on interviews with dozens of lawmakers, staff, congressional agency representatives, and outside experts, revealed deep confusion over a system that receives scant attention and is not the subject of effective universal training on Capitol Hill. To be sure, the Globe learned that many duress alarm systems were installed as usual. One senior staffer in a Republican freshman office described a replacement for a malfunctioning alarm in about 15 hours. Many offices contacted didn’t respond at all, or declined to comment on security matters.

At least two offices only realized their buttons were not installed because of the inquiries from the Globe. While some members without the alarms took a casual view of the lapses, others on Capitol Hill believed all offices should have buttons in place by the start of a new Congress.

“We’ve received assurances that a mistake like that shouldn’t happen again,” said a senior Democratic aide, referring to alarm issues that came to light during the insurrection. “I think it’s a reasonable expectation that they would be set up by the first day of the Congress, particularly if there is an expectation that the offices will be open to the public.”

* * *

After the insurrection, Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat, realized her duress alarm had not been properly hooked up following her own office move a few weeks prior. As a member of the Committee on House Administration when it reviewed security failures after Jan. 6, she said she had been assured that the system would be improved.

“It is our understanding that since [Jan. 6], House office security has been made a higher priority, including updated protocol for connecting duress buttons during office moves and more frequent and effective emergency preparedness and security awareness training for members and staff,” Scanlon said in a statement to the Globe this month.

Yet many of the 13 lapses the Globe learned about at the beginning of this Congress unfolded in a strikingly similar fashion to Scanlon’s, often affecting members who moved offices in the biannual rush to secure better real estate on Capitol Hill ― a massively complicated logistical operation in which multiple agencies coordinate swaps of space, furniture, wall colors, phone lines, and new alarm buttons.

One senior congressional aide said the Capitol Police had planned to install new duress buttons shortly after their December move — but they did not show up, and it was not until last week that the process was fully complete. Another was confounded by a delay of weeks, and many staffers said they wondered why such a sensitive piece of emergency equipment did not seem to be treated like a higher priority.

“Day one, we had everything else,” said Sarah Iddrissu, chief of staff to Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, one of the members who publicly spoke about not having duress buttons during the insurrection. “Safety . . . just seems like the first thing to have. So that’s definitely a question of, when did they plan on putting them in, and why weren’t they there day one?”

A Democrat who works for a member of the California delegation whose button was installed but not activated during the insurrection highlighted the patchwork nature of moving offices as part of the problem. “This is a symptom of a larger issue where this should be automatically done as soon as a member switches offices,” said the California staffer.

Other members found themselves without a button not because they moved, but because they changed furniture.

“As a matter of fact, I found out that there was no panic button on my desk either, because the desk was refinished,” Lofgren said. “I wasn’t focused, I didn’t have one! Probably there should be a test or some kind of training.”

Requests for duress alarms can get tangled in the cluster of agencies involved in moves across the Capitol. The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which provides support services to members’ offices and is involved in their moves, referred questions to the sergeant at arms, or SAA, the chief law enforcement officer of the House. A senior adviser for the SAA referred questions to the Capitol Police, noting that that is the entity that installs them. The architect of the Capitol did not respond to requests for comment.

Capitol Hill is a large campus with security at all open entrance and exit points. Members of the public, including staffers, are required to go through a metal detector to enter, and at multiple points there are ID checks.

Terrance W. Gainer, who formerly served as chief of the Capitol Police and then as Senate sergeant at arms, said delays in installation are understandable because operations on Capitol Hill are so complicated, particularly when it is time to move (the alarms are also present in Senate offices, but Gainer noted there is less turnover in that chamber). He emphasized that members and their staff have other ways of summoning the police, including the phone, if they found themselves in a situation where they needed assistance — making it unlikely that members and their staff would find themselves without any protection. “The failure of process is a concern,” Gainer said. “The bigger concern would be if they were left without opportunity to call for help.”

Still, he said, “It is a problem if you have one less thing that would alert authorities you needed help.”

* * *

When a member of Congress triggers their duress alarm, the Capitol Police arrive in a flash — sometimes as quickly as 30 seconds. Sometimes, an alert is triggered by accident, such as when an unaware staffer or even lawmakers’ curious children set them off. When used intentionally, it’s not always due to an active threat. They’re sometimes used to respond to people who are disruptive or who refuse to leave a congressional office.

One staffer said they hit the alarm when a person who was “clearly having a mental health crisis” caused a disturbance in their office. Another said they used the button when a man distributing white supremacist literature made “couched language threats” in his office. Staff who have triggered the alarms in the past spoke glowingly of the Capitol Police, who at times end up escorting the disruptors out in handcuffs.

“It’s not our job as staff to figure out whether or not something is a threat,” said a Hill staffer who has previously used the duress buttons. “If we feel that we’re not safe in our work environment, we’re supposed to pull those duress buttons.”

Earlier this month the buttons — and the confusion about when and how to use them — got renewed attention on Capitol Hill when Sharon E. Nichols, a communications aide to Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., posted on Twitter about a man who she said claimed to be “an 8-time felon, off his medication,” who had stopped by their office, “ranting about classified information.” The Capitol Police had told their office that these issues would become more common now that the Capitol Hill campus is open to the public, Nichols tweeted.

“Don’t be afraid to use your duress buttons,” she wrote, although a source familiar with the situation told the Globe that staff did not actually hit a button during the incident.

“There’s hesitation because many staffers haven’t been trained on what level of threat warrants using the buttons,” said a Hill aide in a text to the Globe, responding to the incident in Holmes Norton’s office. “Should we only use them for explicit threats/presence of weapons/property damage? Or are we justified in using them as soon as we see red flags? Which behaviors are considered red flags? Etc.”

That confusion extends to members, too.

“I don’t think there’s been any communication at all about duress buttons, any training related to duress buttons,” Bowman said. Even now, he said he does not feel “100 percent safe” and is still “constantly looking over my shoulder” at the Capitol and at home.

In the two Congresses examined by the Globe, the offices found to have been missing functioning duress buttons were often either new to Congress, had just moved, or had just made changes to furniture. None of those things were true for Pressley, however, whose office was the first to speak publicly about missing its buttons during the insurrection.

Her chief of staff, Sarah Groh, told the Globe at the time that they had found their units torn out as she, Pressley, and Pressley’s husband were sheltering in place in Pressley’s office. A security official on Capitol Hill told the Globe that the Capitol Police removed her buttons by mistake, because they had been given the wrong room number.

A person familiar with a review of the matter in 2021 by the Committee on House Administration said that explanation was similar to a theory they dismissed based on additional information they got from the sergeant at arms, and that a conclusive explanation about the matter had not been reached. The SAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Not everyone agrees that the onus of ensuring the alarms are in place should be on Capitol Police. Former representative Rodney Davis, who was the senior Republican on the Committee on House Administration, said members have to make sure of it themselves.

“This isn’t the only piece of equipment that you have to fill out a form for and tell the installing entity that you want one,” Davis said. “You have to do it for everything that comes into your office. You gotta fill out a form for TVs, you gotta fill out a form for computers, you gotta fill out a form for furniture, you gotta do all this stuff so that it’s not like you’re asking the office to do anything above and beyond that you wouldn’t do for any other piece of equipment.”

He knows firsthand: At the start of the last Congress, he was waiting to have his duress button replaced. He said he was without one on Jan. 6.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at lissandra.villa@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @LissandraVilla.