Correction to This Article
A June 21 Page One article about plans to overhaul the Federal Protective Service incorrectly said the agency was created in 1971 after the slaying of a federal judge. The judge, Harold Haley, actually served on the Superior Court in Marin County, Calif.
 

Plan to Cut Federal Security Unit Decried

Brian Smith, a Federal Protective Service guard at an FDA office in College Park, said some guards were ready to walk off their jobs this month after a contractor failed to pay them.
Brian Smith, a Federal Protective Service guard at an FDA office in College Park, said some guards were ready to walk off their jobs this month after a contractor failed to pay them. "There was a feeling of frustration," he says. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Bush administration wants to overhaul the troubled agency in charge of security at most federal buildings, cutting personnel and giving a bigger role to local police. Lawmakers are fighting the plan, saying that it could leave government employees more vulnerable to crime or attacks by terrorists.

The police agency, the Federal Protective Service, employs about 15,000 contract security guards at government buildings nationwide. It has been under fire for its performance in the Washington region, where a report last year found that 30 percent of the service's guards analyzed had expired certifications.

In addition, security guards threatened to walk off their jobs at some D.C. area government facilities this month after they hadn't been paid by their contractor. The Protective Service had hired the contractor without realizing that it was run by a felon and his wife, according to interviews. The incident is the subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill today.

The Department of Homeland Security, parent of the Federal Protective Service, denies that its plans could put government employees in jeopardy. The department wants to shrink the cash-strapped service from 1,150 to 950 federal police officers and staffers and trim their responsibilities. That would enable the service to better oversee the 15,000 guards, whose numbers would not change, officials say.

"We're trying to bring discipline to how those [contract] people are used," Michael P. Jackson, Homeland Security deputy secretary, said during a recent House hearing.

But legislators on two House committees have assailed the plan, saying that more -- not fewer -- federal police officers are needed to oversee the guards and respond to emergency calls. They say the service shouldn't shift such calls to already busy local police departments.

"They are exposing up to 2 million federal workers to greater risk," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

The Protective Service was created by President Richard Nixon in 1971 after a wave of riots and bombings and the slaying of a federal judge. Initially, the service employed about 5,000 armed federal police officers. But in the 1980s, it started hiring private security guards for routine tasks such as checking visitors' identifications. Such guards can restrain intruders but can't make arrests.

With the sharp rise in terrorist threats, the contract guard force has ballooned from a few thousand before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to 15,000 armed and unarmed guards.

The number of federal police officers and staffers in the service has been shrinking, however, from about 1,400 to 1,150 over the past four years. They patrol, evaluate building security plans and arrest thousands of people each year suspected of committing crimes on federal property. They also monitor the guards.

"We have to provide oversight. The problem is that the manpower is not there," David L. Wright, head of the Protective Service employees' union local, told the House Committee on Homeland Security last month.

An audit presented at that hearing highlighted the service's difficulties in overseeing its contract guards.


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