Park Police Face Senior Staffing Shortages

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

The number of U.S. Park Police officers has dropped to a 20-year low, with widespread vacancies in senior ranks, leaving the agency strapped despite heightened concern about protecting the nation's landmarks from terrorism, according to officers and a watchdog group.

New details of the staff shortages emerged as the agency is facing stiff criticism for its performance in guarding such icons as the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. The Interior Department's inspector general reported this month that the force is insufficiently trained and spread too thin in Washington and other places.

"Never in my 19 years have I seen this many headquarter positions vacant," said Jim Austin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee that represents Park Police officers.

Six of the agency's top 13 police positions are empty, Austin and several other officers said in interviews. Meanwhile, the number of sworn officers on the force shrank to 576 at the end of January, according to findings to be made public today by a watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. That is a decline of 49 since 2001, the group said.

The Park Police, which prides itself on being the country's oldest uniformed federal law enforcement agency, has long struggled with a tight budget. But its problems have mounted as it has absorbed anti-terrorism responsibilities since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- without the funding to keep up.

Morale has plunged because of poor management, prompting officers to retire or join other police forces, according to a dozen current and former Park Police employees interviewed by The Washington Post. The police union has called for the resignation of Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford. The inspector general's report questioned whether he "is equipped to effectively advance the mission" of the agency.

Pettiford declined a request for an interview last week. The chief spokesman for the National Park Service, which oversees the police, said that the force is short-handed but that a "revitalization" is underway.

"We agree that the Park Police sworn officer force is currently understaffed and there are equipment replacement needs," spokesman David Barna said.

To address those needs, he said, the Park Police received more than $3 million in 2007 for new gear, with $1 million more to come this year. By 2009, the number of officers is to increase to 630, he said. The Park Service supports the police management, Barna added.

Several reports in recent years have highlighted the Park Police's difficulties in juggling anti-terrorism responsibilities with patrols of urban parks and parkways.

In interviews, current and former employees said the difficulties go even beyond those outlined in the inspector general's recent report. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared reprisal for going public with their concerns. They said personnel gaps and equipment problems were making it harder to protect the public and officers.

For example, much of the Park Police dispatch system in Washington dates to the early 1970s. When it recently broke down, the dispatch office was unable to tap into crime and vehicle databases for two weeks, according to two police officials. Dispatchers coped by calling in officers' queries to a Maryland substation that still had communications and relaying the answers back, officials said.

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