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An Overly Forbidding Presence on the Hill

Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A22

I am an instructor with a civics program that brings students nationwide to Washington to experience their government firsthand. After almost every visit to Capitol Hill, one or two students mention the Capitol Police. They often tell me how nervous they feel when passing an officer who is wearing combat boots, fatigues, a flak jacket, wraparound sunglasses and a ski mask, and carrying an assault rifle. I am also dismayed by this display.

By appearance, the Capitol Police seem more like a SWAT team on patrol than regular police. They apparently fail to understand that they are a visible presence on the Hill and that they project this menacing image to citizens who may never see Washington again.

(J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)

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I live in the District, and I do not feel welcome on the Hill. I can imagine how a visitor from, say, Colorado or California feels taking in the nation's capital for the first time. I doubt many would ask one of these officers for directions to the Supreme Court.

I recognize that the Capitol Police have an important and difficult job, one that is unique among police forces. However, my students have never suggested to me that the uniformed Secret Service officers around the White House are unapproachable. These officers look like police officers ought to look and are not threatening. Yet no one considers them lax in their protection of the president.

In a democracy, police forces walk a fine line because it is their job to enforce the law and to protect citizens. They do this by creating and protecting a public trust. A large part of this is appearing approachable and helpful.

No one doubts the firepower that the Capitol Police could bring to bear if needed, so why must they demonstrate it so overtly? If the answer is deterrence, any police presence on the scale in place on the Hill should serve that function.



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