DPS Turns to Secret Service for Security Advice

Mansion fire not the 'finest moment' for DPS

Governor's Mansion
Governor's Mansion (Photo by John Anderson)

"This is likely not the finest moment for the Department of Public Safety."

That was the conclusion last week of Allan B. Polunsky, the chairman of the Texas Public Safety Commission, after hearing testimony detailing how inadequate staffing, inadequate training, and broken or improperly functioning equipment all contributed to the security failure that resulted in the June 8 early-morning firebombing of the Governor's Mansion. The commission oversees Department of Public Safety operations.

The testimony came from DPS Sgt. Michael Escalante, a former chief of mansion security during the governorship of George W. Bush, who had been asked to investigate the security situation on behalf of the commission. Escalante's review was damning, and Polunsky said he would ask the U.S. Secret Service to review security measures by DPS at the mansion and other state facilities and landmarks.

Mansion security has been reduced in recent months while renovations have been occurring; Gov. Perry and wife Anita are living in a house in West Austin during the construction. A lone trooper guarded the mansion that night, and Escalante testified that only 13 of the grounds' 21 cameras were operational and that some of the property's infrared motion-detector beams also were either not working properly or guards hadn't been trained to operate them.

Asked by Polunsky if he thought the lone trooper – stationed in the carriage house behind the mansion – should have been adequate protection, Escalante replied: "No, I do not. With the cameras improperly working and the beams inactivated like they were, there should have been additional personnel on the ground. A second set of eyes." A request for four troopers per shift had been made, Escalante said, but that level of staffing apparently never came to fruition.

And what troopers there were didn't get adequate training, Escalante said. Officers were brought in from the Capitol complex and others from the Highway Patrol division. "Some of those received training, some ... did not receive any training. As time moved on and different people came in to the security at the Governor's Mansion, the training as it was passed on, some people that were new that had come in were not familiar with the operations of the camera system, were not familiar with the operations of the perimeter beam. ... They had no consistent plan of action on that transition phase."

Asked by commissioners if there were postings in the carriage house explaining the use of various mechanical aspects of security – cameras, fire alarms, opening and closing the gates – Escalante replied, "There was some training involved that involved sitting a couple of hours with another officer" on how to open and close the gates and how to deal with alarms, but, "there was not any formal training" on camera operation.

"There was not anything in writing when I had requested fire alarm procedures," Escalante added. "During my interview with Lieutenant [David] Armistead [the head of the governor's security detail], he was trying to produce those. He said, 'Yeah, they're here on the board someplace.' He looked for them, [but] they were not to be found at that time. Whether someone put them away, we looked in another book. I later obtained them from his office."

The DPS' security measures need "to be assessed and reassessed," said Polunsky, as he closed the hearing. "To that end, I am requesting that the United States Secret Service come in and do an assessment of the Capitol complex, Gover­nor's Mansion, and other public facilities in this city and possibly in others [and] advise the Department of Public Safety as to what optimum security measures should be in place. I ask them to do this because they are, in my opinion, the pre-eminent organization or agency in the world to make this type of assessment. ... It's not a reflection on DPS. I'm confident DPS will work with the U.S. Secret Service in conjunction with this assessment that will be performed expeditiously."

Although Escalante's open testimony came only after a lengthy, closed-door executive session meeting with the committee, Polunsky promised that, "What takes place here in this department needs to be transparent and will be open when appropriate, in public view, of exactly what has taken place, and we will continue to go forward with that philosophy."

Despite the catastrophic gaffe that allowed the still at-large perpetrator to torch the 152-year-old landmark, Polunsky praised the DPS as "still without question one of the finest state law enforcement agencies in this country, if not the finest. But, nevertheless, we had a lapse here in this particular situation. We need to identify what took place, address it, so that it doesn't happen again, and we are committed to do that."

On Tuesday, the DPS received a scathing review from the state Sunset Advisory Commission for management problems, but, surprisingly, the topic of the Governor's Mansion never came up.

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Governor's Mansion, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Public Safety Commission

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