MONTPELIER — Vermont State Police, Capitol Police and the Montpelier Police Department are planning for “any eventuality” if reports of armed protests planned for all 50 state capitols beginning Jan. 17 come to fruition at the Statehouse or other government buildings, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said Monday.
Schirling kept details of a planned police response close to his vest during an hour-long briefing with reporters. But he said state police, since Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol, have been in “close coordination” with Montpelier and Capitol police, and with federal law enforcement, “to monitor threat streams and plan for any eventuality that may arise in the days to come.”
The Department of Public Safety has been in contact with the Vermont National Guard in case it is needed, Schirling said.
The briefing came as a Federal Bureau of Investigation bulletin advised law enforcement nationwide that groups are planning armed protests at all 50 state capitols and at the U.S. Capitol on Sunday.
According to the bulletin, first reported by ABC News, a group plans on “storming” state, local and federal government courthouses and administrative buildings across the country if President Donald Trump is removed before the inauguration, as well as on Inauguration Day — regardless of how their state voted.
“At this stage there is a not a specific set of threats, or a threat that has emerged specific to Vermont,” Schirling said.
According to Schirling, the Capitol Police Department — the state police entity which serves the Statehouse, lawmakers, dignitaries, visitors, and staff — has provided training and guidance for lawmakers, most of whom are not in Montpelier as the Legislature works remotely during the pandemic. A safety briefing for lawmakers is expected to take place in days to come, Schirling said.
State Police Col. Matthew Birmingham said protecting elected officials is a “high priority.”
“If there’s any threat to any legislators anywhere in the state we will work closely with police and fed authorities if necessary,” he said.
“In light of the horrific events at the Capitol and the information regarding possible rallies at the Vermont State House, Speaker [Jill Krowinski] and I have been in close communication with the Capitol Police and Sergeant at Arms regarding State House security,” state Senate President Becca Balint said.
“We’re working to make sure we’re keeping all the Vermonters who work in the Capitol complex safe. We are grateful for the collaborative approach being taken by law enforcement agencies including the Capitol Police, the Vermont State Police, and the Montpelier Police Department,” Balint said.
Asked about the investigation into Sgt. Lucas Hall, a Vermont State Police officer stationed at the Shaftsbury barracks who made a social media post supporting the storming of the Capitol, Schirling said he expects to make an announcement on the results shortly. He said he was not aware of any other VSP officer who has espoused the same views.
While Schirling said it’s not his place to tell protesters what to do, he advised would-be participants to think through whether they should carry a firearm while protesting.
Vermont is an “open carry” state, and it’s legal for people to be in possession of firearms in public, Schirling said. It’s what people do or don’t do with those weapons that matters, he said.
“Certainly weapons of any kind are always a significant concern that they could be used inappropriately,” Schirling said. “But Vermonters are by and large folks who use weapons for sport on a day-to-day basis.”
“If people are peacefully carrying a weapon that is not an issue. When it’s brandished in a threatening manner it obviously is,” Schirling said.
He said law enforcement is also planning for the possibility that counter-protesters might be present as well, and that they, too, should think through the circumstances.
The political conflict “raises the stakes,” Schirling said. “Those are concerns we try to plan for. But again, Vermonters have a long history of peaceful protest … our expectation, hope and resist is that it happens in that manner.”
Asked if he had a message for Vermonters made uneasy by last week’s events and the FBI warning about the possibility of more, Schirling said the state has a long history of tolerance and peaceful protest.
“I think we’re all feeling concern and unease as a result of what we saw last week,” Schirling said.
“I think Vermonters by and large are a much more tolerant population, very used to working across lines and collaborating rather than being at odds, even when they disagree,” he said. “I would also want [people] to know we are focused intently on their safety”
Schirling also added that “at no other time” has the dictum “See something, say something” been more important when it comes to identifying potential threats.
“If something makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck or is clearly a threat, it’s vitally important to report those — even if they seem small,” Schirling said.
Schirling said the state will likely reassess government security protocols “really widely” given last week’s events. “It will necessitate a look at everything,” he said.