Radio System Upgrade Taking Too Long, Senators Tell Chief

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called problems with the police radio system
Sen. Dianne Feinstein called problems with the police radio system "unacceptable." (Lauren Victoria Burke - Lauren Victoria Burke/abc News)
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By Sindya N. Bhanoo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse faced sharp questioning yesterday from senators who urged him to quickly step up plans to retool the force's problem-plagued radio system.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) criticized the agency for not acting sooner to upgrade a communications system that breaks down frequently, saying officials have been talking for years about the need for improvements. The radios conk out in dead spots around congressional buildings and have limited connections to local police in the Washington area.

"To me, it is unacceptable that every officer can't know what's going on," said Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which summoned Morse and other officials to a hearing yesterday. "When the moments come, they come without warning."

She added, "If you let this continue, it could result in a dramatic loss of life."

Feinstein said she has witnessed the problems. During a precautionary evacuation of Senate buildings this year, people were forced to remain outside longer than necessary because of poor communications between officers, she said.

Congress set aside $10 million last year for the first phase of a new Capitol Police radio system, but lawmakers insisted on seeing a plan first. Capitol Police have sought at least $65 million for the entire project.

Yesterday, Morse said he has no timetable yet for completion, and Feinstein and Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) questioned the accuracy of the Capitol Police cost projections.

The hearing was the second on Capitol Hill in a month to deal with the radio breakdowns. In June, members of a House subcommittee expressed similar frustrations. At that hearing, Morse said that most of the system's infrastructure is 25 years old and that manufacturers no longer make many critical parts.

In addition to the radio breakdowns, Morse is dealing with other issues. One-quarter of a recent batch of recruits were hired despite failing background checks. The 15 recruits were subsequently kicked out of the training academy. Senators raised questions about the ousted recruits in a session that was closed to the public because it involved personnel matters. Some of the recruits have hired lawyers.

The union representing rank-and-file Capitol Police officers has complained about Morse's management style, and those tensions were aired during the public part of yesterday's hearing. The union released a survey this week that revealed unhappiness with the chief, who took over the force in 2006.

Management is inaccessible and officers are uncertain about how and why decisions are made, said Matt Tighe, head of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee that represents Capitol Police officers.

Morale has never been so low, said Tighe, who testified at yesterday's hearing.

Feinstein tried to play the part of a peaceful intermediary, saying that the two sides need to work together for a "positive relationship." She said the committee will have a follow-up hearing in six months.

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