Metal Detectors Often Turned off at Smithsonian Museums

Metal detectors installed at the Smithsonian Institution's four most popular museums after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are not being used for most of the day because of a staff shortage, officials acknowledge.

Twenty-two magnetometers have been installed at the National Air and Space, American History, Natural History, and American Indian museums.

The museums' approximately 15 million annual visitors pass through the detectors. Except for an unspecified number of brief periods every day, however, the only security check they are subjected to is to have their bags checked, says a memo from the National Air and Space Museum's security unit.

"I don't have the staff to do full-time screening" with the devices, said Smithsonian Security Director J. J. McLaughlin. Random screenings "was the second-best thing we could do."

"There is a lack of adequate security officers, and lines would be too long if people have to wait 30 [to] 45 minutes," he said. "We have to balance security and customer service."

Computer sets screenings
A Smithsonian spokeswoman, Vicky Moeser, emphasized that "there are guards at all the entrances all the time. They check [for metal objects] when the magnetometers are on, and when they are not on, they are checking bags."

"Security officers will not inform visitors of the discontinuation of electronic screening," the security unit memo says.

Officials would not say what percentage of the museums' visiting hours the sound is turned on. A computer selects exact times for the screenings, McLaughlin said.

"You don't know when we do random screening," he said. "These were tough decisions to make, and nobody at the Smithsonian wanted them."

At least an additional 60 officers would be needed to staff the magnetometers and check handbags full time at the four museums, McLaughlin said. He noted that like many security agencies, "we have a large turnover. Security officers go to better-paying security jobs."

Operating each magnetometer station requires three officers, he said. One welcomes visitors, a second instructs them to walk though detectors, and a third uses a hand detector when needed.

Officers do perform "a thorough but speedy" hand check of bags, according to the Smithsonian Web site.

Complaints about checks
Some visitors have complained that the security checks are too swift.

Debbie Williams, a Tennessean visiting the nation's capital during the Cherry Blossom Festival in April, said she expected her cell phone to trigger a beep when she walked through detectors in the American History Museum. "I feel safe, but I am just concerned my phone did not" set off an alarm, she said.

Orlando Alvarez of Richmond, Va., complained about the bag checks: "There was very little [of a] check at the front door. They need to put more people out there."

The Smithsonian's Office of Protective Services has a staff of 800, including security officers and administrative personnel, McLaughlin said.

The museums received $57.5 million in federal funding for security for the current fiscal year, up 4.1 percent from the previous year.

Close to $1 million of that is for hiring 34 security officers to screen at the National Museum of Natural History, according to a Smithsonian Facilities Operations, Security and Support budget request summary.

A new class of officers joined the department in May, according to McLaughlin. The Smithsonian declined to specify exact numbers because of security reasons.