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The Lawmakers vs. the Police Officer

Was it a scuffle or a misunderstanding? Regardless, it's building to a political fray.

April 05, 2006|Johanna Neuman and Nick Timiraos | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — It started with the seemingly smallest of incidents -- a misunderstanding last week at a security checkpoint in the Longworth House Office Building, where guards regularly check the identification and belongings of those who enter.

But by Tuesday, the encounter between Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.) and a U.S. Capitol Police officer -- in which he touched her on the shoulder and she jabbed him with her cellphone -- had begun to mushroom into a furor replete with accusations of racial profiling and threats of criminal charges. Along the way, leaders of both political parties and federal law enforcement joined in the fray.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, it seems, no security issue is minor. And in the world of Washington politics, no incident is too small or too sensitive to be exploited as partisan cannon fodder.

The issue arose when McKinney stepped around the building's metal detector, as members of Congress are entitled to do. But she was not wearing the pin that identifies her as a member, and a guard tried to stop her.

Some think the resulting confrontation may have sprung from nothing more than a change of hairdo.

McKinney acknowledged she was not wearing her identifying pin, but maintained the guard should have recognized a member's face -- as Capitol Police often do, though it is not a requirement. Colleagues say McKinney had recently changed her hairstyle, suggesting that may have led to a failure to recognize her.

By the end of Tuesday, however, the last thing anyone involved with the case seemed to be looking for was an innocent explanation or a way to turn down the heat.

In the House, Republicans rushed to put themselves on the side of law and order, pushing through a resolution applauding the Capitol Police.

"I don't think it's fair to attack the Capitol Police, and I think it's time that we show our support for them," said sponsor Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.).

The Justice Department, which handles local prosecutions in the District of Columbia, said it was considering criminal charges against McKinney.

A conservative blog, NewsByUs.com, gibed that McKinney was suffering from PTHD, post traumatic hairstyle disorder.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) distanced herself from McKinney: "I think what happened last week was a very unfortunate incident. I think that all members of Congress like to be recognized, that's for sure. And this was a case in which she wasn't. I don't think any of it justifies hitting a police officer. I don't know if that happened, but I am saying if it did happen, I don't think it was justified."

And with the media digging up every morsel they could on McKinney's behavior, Channel 2 Action News in Atlanta reported that McKinney spent $1,000 to fly singer Isaac Hayes to the dedication of a new office in Atlanta. After the news aired, McKinney's staff said taxpayers would be reimbursed.

Controversy is nothing new to McKinney's 4th District constituents.

In an earlier incident that echoes what pundits are now calling "the Scuffle," McKinney complained when guards at the White House during the Clinton administration did not recognize her or treat her like other members of Congress.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, McKinney apologized to Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal after New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani turned down his offer of $10 million to help families of Sept. 11 victims. She suggested the money be sent to poor Americans.

A few months later, McKinney called for an investigation into whether President Bush knew in advance of the attacks. "Persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new war," she said.

"She's a political exhibitionist," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "She's always cavorted like this."

Born into a political family -- her father, Billy McKinney, was one of the first blacks on the Atlanta Police Department and was elected to the Legislature in 1973 -- McKinney has said that she recalls riding on her father's shoulders as child in civil rights marches.

On Friday, with two dozen Georgia schoolchildren in the background holding signs that read "God Bless Cynthia" and "Is Cynthia a Target?" McKinney criticized the officer for touching her shoulder and asking her to go through the metal detector.

Her lawyer, James Myart, elaborated. "Like thousands of average Americans across this country, [she] is too a victim of the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials because of how she looks and the color of her skin. Ms. McKinney is just a victim of being in Congress while black."

The chairman of the U.S. Capitol Police Fraternal Order of Police, Andy Maybo, issued a statement backing the officer, who is believed to be white.

"We, the U.S. Capitol Police Fraternal Order of Police, are extremely proud of our officer," Maybo said. "He has upheld his oath as an officer and has executed his duties and responsibilities in a professional manner."

Entrances to the Capitol and congressional office buildings are monitored by security video. It's not clear, though, if the incident involving the congresswoman and the Capitol policeman was in camera range.

In 1998, a gunman killed two Capitol Police officers and wounded a tourist in a gun battle that erupted after the man broke past a security checkpoint in the Capitol. That incident, along with Sept. 11, led to a major tightening of congressional security.

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