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California and the West

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Upholds Security and Family Tradition

November 29, 1998|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The telephone would ring in the Senate sergeant-at-arms office at the state Capitol and the demands of legislators would roll in:

* Go to the pharmacy and pick up my birth control pills.

* Come over to my house right away. My kid has thrown up on the wall.

* Turn on the spa at my home so it will be warm when I get there.

* Stand in line and get "Star Wars" tickets for me.

* Go to my apartment and feed my cats.

"Some of our members became outrageous in what they wanted us to do," said Tony Beard Jr., the man who for years fielded many such demands and, eventually, helped phase them out.

"We don't get those kinds of requests anymore," Beard said of what until a few years ago was accepted legislative practice.

"It was using state employees for personal reasons," said Beard, the chief sergeant-at-arms of the state Senate since 1981 and the third-generation member of his family to make a career of safeguarding the Capitol.

Beard said the requests came from a handful of senators and were largely unknown to members of the governing Senate Rules Committee, headed by then-President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

When he privately outlined the abuses to the committee, Beard said, it readily gave him the backing he sought to refuse any chore that did not qualify as "legitimate legislative business."

"I was worried that they'd look at me and say, 'What's your problem?' But they were actually shocked" at the list of demands, Beard recalled in an interview last week.

These days, Beard says, his staff of 16 still will be asked occasionally to get coffee or perform a personal errand. More likely, they are apt to be summoned to monitor a Capitol demonstration or check out a threat to a member, he says.

Earlier this month, Beard and CHP Commissioner D.O. Helmick found themselves standing outside the Capitol watching as protesters rappelled from the roof and unfurled a 40-foot banner seeking better protection for Humboldt County's redwood forests.

Beard, 48, a onetime amateur stuntman who considered turning pro, is one of hundreds of Capitol staffers whose unpublicized tasks keep the Legislature on track.

The unarmed sergeants-at-arms are charged with maintaining the security of the Senate and Assembly chambers, committee rooms and legislative offices. They are augmented by armed officers of the California Highway Patrol.

They also must keep order and operate recording equipment at committee hearings, carry messages from lobbyists to legislators in the chamber, and distribute bills and other documents to members.

Tasks such as transporting lawmakers to the airport or moving office furniture is handled by a separate support staff known as special services.

Beard, a graying, affable man with a streak of vanity, delights in telling how he has reformed his office from a band of mostly retired policemen to a younger, more diverse cadre trained in weaponless defense and emergency preparedness techniques.

His assistants, all certified peace officers, are equipped with Secret Service-style earplug radios. They monitor a bank of remote cameras that scan the Capitol.

"He is a total professional," said Roberti, one of Beard's former bosses. "He wanted to professionalize the service and he did. Under him, it became a security service as opposed to serving coffee."

It was on a spring day in 1967 that the Capitol lost its innocence as a wide-open public building virtually devoid of security precautions.

As startled tourists and schoolchildren watched, two dozen armed members of a little known revolutionary band called the Black Panthers stormed into the Assembly chamber to protest a gun regulation bill.

Shocked legislators froze in their seats or ducked for safety behind their desks. Beard's father, veteran Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard, marched down from his post at the rostrum and ordered the invaders out. They obeyed.

"That's where it all started to change," Beard Jr. said. Gradually, Capitol security tightened--a process that is still underway.

In 1981, when he applied for the post as the Senate's chief sergeant, Beard, who served as a Capitol night watchman and furniture mover, said he pitched hard for making security a higher priority.

"The nature of the job is protection of the house," Beard said. He stressed that public institutions should be considered vulnerable to possible attack by disgruntled individuals or groups and must be prepared.

"Life is changing in this arena," Beard recalled telling the Rules Committee. "People don't like you for a variety of reasons."

His father , a former stuntman who appeared in films with Hollywood stars such as John Wayne and Clark Gable, served as the chief Assembly sergeant-at-arms for 21 years. He retired in 1977.

Actually, the father and son Capitol security tradition got started in the early 1900s, when Beard's grandfather, Joseph Beard, was appointed chief of the tiny State Police Department by Gov. Hiram Johnson. He retired in 1947.

But the tradition will end with Beard. His daughter, Kristin, is a Sacramento lobbyist and has never expressed any interest in following his career path.

"She's been around here since she was a baby," he said. "She knows the place, but she is very good as a lobbyist."

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