U.S. Park Police declined to estimate the turnout for yesterday's Latino March, saying they have been ordered by Congress to get out of the controversial business of counting crowds gathered on the Mall.
Park Police have been providing such crowd estimates since the 1960s but often have been criticized by event organizers who said their official counts were too low.
The issue came to a boil after last year's Million Man March, when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan threatened to sue the Park Police to force a revision of a crowd estimate of 400,000 for the gathering.
In the 1997 appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior, Congress included language that prohibits the National Park Service from conducting crowd estimates, said David Barna, chief of public affairs for the Park Service. The legislation also states that if event organizers want crowd estimates, they should contract with an outside agency, Barna said.
Barna said the Park Service learned of the decision just two days ago after going through the 800-page appropriations bill. He said that Congress acted on its own without any prompting from his agency and that he did not know whether the decision was related to the dispute over the Million Man March.
The Park Service "is not upset or disappointed" to be relieved of its crowd-counting responsibilities, Barna said. "It has always been a thankless job for the Park Service," he said. "Every organization would always cry foul, saying the numbers should be larger."
Several Park Police officials yesterday also said they were not unhappy about the change in policy.
"No matter what we said or did, no one ever felt we gave a fair estimate," said Park Police Maj. J.J. McLaughlin, who had been in charge of coordinating crowd estimates. "I talked to African Americans after the Million Man March, and in their hearts they believed a million men were there."
Park Police had estimated the number of people attending an event by examining aerial photographs. The practice was begun in part because it helped officials make plans for handling major events, police said. Officials would use previous crowd estimates to help determine how many police officers were needed at a particular event and to estimate how much the cleanup would cost.
Yesterday's events, including the Latino March, the Taste of D.C. festival and the AIDS Memorial Quilt display, marked the first time Park Police have not done crowd estimates, McLaughlin said.
"It got to the point where the numbers became the entire focus of the demonstration," McLaughlin said. "If people want crowd estimates, let them hire someone to do it."
That's precisely what organizers for the Latino March chose to do.
Aides to the National Coordinating Office of the march said that they hired their own consultant to provide an estimate of the crowd size and that they had not intended to rely on figures provided by police or other authorities.
By midafternoon, organizers were estimating the crowd at 25,000, a number they said had exceeded their expectations.
Sam Jordan, director of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness, said his agency also estimated the crowd at 25,000 to 30,000. Staff writer Pamela Constable contributed to this report.