AUSTIN (KXAN) — For nearly seven months in 2020, the outside of the Texas Capitol looked more like a military installation than one of the largest tourist attractions in Austin. Every gate was chained shut with uniformed security standing watch.
National Guard soldiers and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers stood by, making sure no one stepped foot on the Capitol grounds. Doing so would likely end in a criminal trespassing charge.
It was this way from May 31 through Dec. 16.
On May 30, the Capitol came under attack by protesters and rioters who’d spent the previous days in and around downtown Austin made their way to the Capitol. Troopers stood watch as crowds moved toward the Capitol. DPS later said in a press release that rioters had spray painted the Capitol building and tore down monuments on the grounds.
After closing the grounds to the public on May 30, the DPS rolled hundreds of troopers in from across the state. DPS records show 566 troopers from five separate regions arrived in Austin to provide protection under what DPS labeled “Capitol Deployment” in records provided to KXAN.
By the end of June, DPS had an average of 488 troopers per day working in Austin under the deployment, according to records provided to KXAN.
On June 5, DPS increased the number of troopers in Austin to 739, the largest single-day count during the entire deployment. DPS continued staffing new troopers daily through June 30 with a total of 14,638 troopers on the ground in Austin over the span of the month.
DPS spent more than $6.1 million on overtime, travel and hotel during the Capitol lockdown. The agency spent more than $3.6 million in overtime in July, according to spending records.
It cost Texas taxpayers more than $1.1 in travel and hotel expenses between May 30 and Dec. 16, the day the Capitol grounds reopened to the public.
Protests in Austin continued into June and became less frequent into July and by the end of August, the protests that had erupted periodically in downtown Austin ended. Since August, we have no records of reports of rioting or protesting in the city.
The Capitol grounds remained closed.
DPS trooper staffing records also declined as the frequency of the protests dwindled. On August 1, DPS records showed 525 troopers working the Capitol Deployment. By August 7, that number dropped to just 37 troopers.
The Capitol grounds remained closed and overtime, travel and hotel expenses continued to mount. In September, the agency reported paying out $673,020 in overtime.
“The Capitol grounds were closed May 30 following protests which resulted in injury to Department of Public Safety personnel, destruction of state property, and damage to the historic building, fixtures, and grounds. The decision to keep the grounds closed involved DPS’s recommendation that the most sustainable, effective, and safe course of action to protect state property was to control entry to the grounds,” State Preservation Board spokesman Chris Currens told KXAN in a Dec. 4, 2020 email.
Currens said “leadership and DPS” were in “ongoing” talks to reopen the grounds when we contacted the SPB in early December.
Governor Abbott is listed as the SPB chairman and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen are listed as co-chairmen. None of the three would agree to an interview to discuss the prolonged closure of the grounds to the public.
McCraw’s press office would not schedule an interview with the director concerning the closure.
TX Military Department Won’t Respond
The Governor dispatched the Texas National Guard to the Capitol grounds to assist DPS in responding to the rioting and protests in and around Austin.
Dozens of soldiers filed out of white buses outside the Capitol’s north entrance on May 31 as protesters made their way from a protest outside the Austin Police Department toward the Capitol. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, soldiers ran onto the Capitol grounds in formation.
Soldiers have been posted outside the Capitol building and at the pedestrian gates surrounding the grounds ever since.
On Dec. 1, we submitted a request to the Texas Military Department’s press office asking for the same records we asked DPS for regarding the head counts and spending associated with the TMD’s deployment to the Capitol. After multiple attempts to have that Dec. 1 request answered, no one from the state guard responded.
On Dec. 30, Colonel Rita Holton, who identified herself as the guard’s director of communications, responded with a phone call. “We have deficiencies we’re working through in communications,” Holton said when asked why it took nearly a month to get a response from the TMD.
Holton also did not have any information on the number of soldiers deployed to secure the Capitol or how much the TMD spent in taxpayer dollars to pay for the deployment. “We have a lot of things going on right now,” Holton told KXAN, saying she was working with TMD staff to find the answers to the questions we posed on Dec. 1.
The only question Holton could answer in the call was that none of the soldiers deployed to the Capitol were taken from border security duties. Holton said the guard did not have soldiers deployed to the border “during this time.”
Holton said she could not release any of the spending totals unless we filed a formal open records request with the TMD. That request was filed Dec. 30 and has not yet been fulfilled. Holton said she’d have an update on soldier counts by Jan. 5, but did not provide that update by the time this report was published.
DPS Wants $39.1M More
Although DPS Director Steve McCraw would not agree to an interview to discuss the reasons for keeping the public locked out of the Capitol grounds, McCraw did provide a legislative budget board some insight into the rationale for the lockdown.
“As you’re well aware, the Capitol security—when we talk about Capitol security—we’re talking about 46 city blocks in the Capitol complex, 38 state buildings, we’ve got 22 acres on the Capitol grounds,” McCraw told the board during a Nov. 6 hearing in Austin.
“Certainly it (Texas Capitol building) is the most iconic location in the state of Texas and it is a target for domestic terrorists and violent activists and even mob violence. And it’s something we’re mindful of and that we need to and have an obligation to do all we can to protect it with the resources we have,” McCraw said over a video conference.
McCraw did not have his camera turned on in the recorded public meeting.
The director wants the legislature to approve an additional $39.1 million in taxpayer funding in the upcoming budget to provide what he called “enhanced Capitol security. That funding would include 74 new full time DPS staff assigned to Capitol security, according to the DPS funding request.
“There is a strong desire by these anarchist insurgents to ransack and destroy the Capitol using whatever means possible including incendiary devices. The seriousness of the threat resulted in the state Leadership and legislature to close the Capitol and Capitol Grounds and the Governor deployed waves of DPS Field Force Operations Teams from around the state for sustained periods of time to staff overlapping shifts of up to 14 hours a day to protect the Capitol, Capitol Complex and the City of Austin,” the budget request stated.
DPS dispatched 3,000 troopers, special agents, Texas Rangers to “hot spot locations” in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio during the 2020 protests, according to the request.
McCraw’s request also informed lawmakers that the TMD would continue to be involved in securing the Capitol, “…especially so if a major incident or series of incidents result in statewide protests. Antigovernment violent extremists will again use such opportunities to incite violence and the Texas National Guard can provide essential support when directed to do so by the Governor,” the budget request stated.
The budget request, if approved this session, would provide DPS with 65 new troopers, five agents and two analysts dedicated to the agency’s expanded Capitol complex security plan. The equipment DPS plans to purchase includes $1.8 million for panic buttons, x-ray machines, video cameras, gunshot detection sensors and $1 million for “Enhanced Bomb Dog Capability.”
The request is based upon sensitive detailed information and a comprehensive needs assessment conducted by the United States Secret Service at the request of DPS,” the DPS report stated.
McCraw did not detail exactly what specific threats, if any, the state has received that led DPS to ask for the additional $39.1 million.