"We are at a staffing and resource crisis in the United States Park Police -- a crisis that, if allowed to continue, will almost surely result in the loss of life or the destruction of one of our nation's most valued symbols of freedom and democracy."
-- Fired U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers, in a Nov. 28, 2003, memo
DON'T BOTHER warning about security threats to our national monuments or parkways if you're the police chief responsible for securing them -- you'll be fired if you do. That's what happened to U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers, who was sacked this month after appealing a decision to put her on leave for truthfully responding to questions from The Post and other news outlets about the dangerous state of the Park Police's understaffing and underfunding. The decision to terminate Ms. Chambers, who is fighting the decision, suggests that her supervisors at the National Park Service and the Interior Department are less interested in addressing the chief's urgent warnings than in punishing anyone who dares embarrass them.
Ms. Chambers's description of the Park Police's problems is compelling. While other law enforcement agencies have been given astronomical increases in staffing and budgeting, the Park Police's paltry 620-member force -- which was already criticized as being too low in 2000 -- has not changed since Sept. 11, 2001. Compare that with the nearby Capitol Police Force, which went from 206 officers to 1,573. This personnel freeze was accompanied by new and unfunded mandates from the Interior Department to beef up security at the monuments -- orders that left the Park Police with a $12 million budgetary shortfall going into the current fiscal year and deprived other critical areas of uniformed officers. Without an additional $8 million in funding in the coming year's budget, Ms. Chambers warned, the number of officers will drop to its lowest level since 1987.
Any time Ms. Chambers brought up these pressing needs with her superiors in the months before she was put on leave, she was ignored or castigated. Yet she is not alone in articulating these outstanding issues. A blistering inspector general's report released last year declared that the Park Service "has failed to successfully adapt its mission and priorities to reflect its new security priorities." Part of the problem, the report said, lies in a long-standing institutional reluctance within the Park Service management to see security as a top budgetary priority over other park projects.
It's time for that to change -- and the first step is to reinstate Ms. Chambers. If the Park Service and Interior Department cannot admit their mistake, the Merit Systems Protection Board, which is hearing Ms. Chambers's appeal, ought to put her back on the job while her firing is appealed. Ms. Chambers is convinced that this fight is about safety and the public's right to know the truth, and she's right.