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.
Meanwhile, the police radio system is so old that officers sometimes hit "dead spots" in which they can't communicate with dispatchers, officers said.
Gaps in senior leadership have contributed to problems, officers said. The assistant chief's slot is empty, as are two of the three deputy chief positions and jobs overseeing training, criminal investigations and technical services, they said.
"The whole infrastructure has kind of collapsed," said Lance Ludwick, a Park Police major who retired in 2006.
Sgt. Robert Lachance, a Park Police spokesman, said he could not discuss staffing. Barna, the Park Service spokesman, also declined comment on specific personnel and equipment problems, saying the service was preparing a response to the inspector general's report. Officials said one of the six senior police officials who left has returned to a Park Police civilian job.
The inspector general's report noted that an exodus of senior officials "has left a void in what was already weak leadership."
The vacancies go beyond senior management. Key civilians have departed and not been replaced. That has left some officers facing long delays in being paid scheduled raises, according to the union, which has filed a grievance.
The Park Police have not had a person in charge of officer-safety issues or an armorer to repair and maintain weapons for about two years, Austin and others said.
Meanwhile, promotion exams for aspiring sergeants and lieutenants haven't been held for five years, Austin and others said. "That's a huge, huge morale problem," said one mid-level official.
Although some attributed the delay to funding shortages, others said it reflected an absence of contracting and training officials who typically organize the promotion exams.
The Park Police recently trained its first group of recruits since September 2006, adding seven officers. But even with them, the number of sworn officers dropped to 576 at the end of January, the lowest level since 1987, according to Park Police figures obtained by PEER, the watchdog group.
The number of officers is smaller today than when former Park Police chief Teresa Chambers was suspended in 2003 after publicly warning that her 620-officer force was overtaxed. PEER has been supporting the chief in a whistle-blower case since she was fired in 2004.
Several officers interviewed by The Post accused the current police chief of aggravating the force's difficulties with what they called an abrasive style and micromanagement. In a survey released last year, the union found that about 98 percent of the 179 members polled said they had no confidence in Pettiford's abilities.
And yet, critics agree, the problems clearly go beyond the chief.
Gary Hankins, a consultant to the Park Police union, said the force suffers because it is part of Interior, whose focus is land management. Police in some other Cabinet-level agencies have a similar problem, he said.
"Because the police departments aren't part of the primary function of that agency, they tend to be ignored," he said.
Perhaps more important, the agency's budget has not kept up with its expanded mission. Since the 2001 attacks, the force has stepped up security at national monuments and areas such as parkland bordering Reagan National Airport. It also has expanded dignitary protection.
The Park Police budget has risen about $7 million in the past five years, to approximately $85 million. But salaries and benefits have increased $2 million to $3 million a year, leaving it squeezed, Park Service officials say.
In a series of reports for Congress beginning in 2001, the National Academy of Public Administration said it would be difficult for the Park Police to continue being both an urban police department and guardian of national parks and icons unless its budget grew. It suggested that the agency focus more on guarding monuments and handling demonstrations and get help from state and local police to patrol parkways and write traffic tickets.
"You can't have it both ways," the report said.