Pamela A. Smith, a longtime commander of the U.S. Park Police, was named the permanent chief Thursday by the National Park Service and said she would immediately move to implement body-worn cameras for a department that currently has no cameras in its cars or on its officers.
Smith has been a Park Police officer for 23 years, and she becomes the first African American woman to lead the agency in its 230-year history. Park Police officers are stationed in parks in and around Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco. As a major, she was the first woman to lead the New York field office, and she has also served as deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division and the Field Operations Division.
The Park Police have been under scrutiny since November 2017 for their handling of the fatal shooting of an unarmed motorist in Fairfax County, Va., by two officers. Bijan Ghaisar, 25, was shot four times as he tried to maneuver his Jeep Grand Cherokee away from Officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya. After federal prosecutors declined to charge the officers in 2019, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano obtained manslaughter indictments last fall against the two officers, which are pending. The officers have said they fired because they feared Ghaisar was about to run over Amaya.
The officers were not wearing body cameras, and their marked SUV did not have a camera. No Park Police officers or vehicles are equipped with cameras. The shooting was captured by an in-car camera of a Fairfax County police lieutenant who followed the officers’ pursuit of Ghaisar down the George Washington Memorial Parkway into a residential neighborhood, where the officers fired 10 shots into Ghaisar’s SUV. The Fairfax police chief released the video over federal authorities’ objections.
Smith said in a news release that she would establish a body-worn camera program for the Park Police within 90 days. She said it would begin in San Francisco, which she said had 42 employees, and be implemented in Washington and New York by the end of the year.
“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers," Smith said in the release, "which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days. This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.” She said in an afternoon news conference that “I anticipate this will be broadly welcomed by the members of our agency.”
Kenneth Spencer, president of the Park Police’s Fraternal Order of Police labor committee, said that he and his predecessors had been pushing Congress and department leadership for cameras for years. He said devising policies for camera use and data storage, for reviewing and releasing footage and other issues “is going to take awhile, but it’s great that it’s finally happening. The officers are ready for it.”
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) have introduced a bill requiring all uniformed federal police officers to wear body cameras. It was incorporated into a larger crime bill last year and has passed the House but not the Senate. No Justice Department officers use cameras, and only park rangers use them within the Interior Department, officials have said.
Smith’s predecessors did not publicly discuss Ghaisar’s case. After launching the investigation of the shooting and excluding Fairfax police, then-Chief MacLean handed the case over to the FBI and refused to talk about it. Monahan continued that policy during his tenure as acting chief. More than three years after the shooting, the Park Police have not started an internal investigation of the case, pending the resolution of the criminal case against Vinyard and Amaya.
In the news conference, Smith said she was working in New York when the Ghaisar killing occurred, and that “I want to convey my deepest condolences to the Ghaisar family.” She said that she hadn’t been involved in the case but “one of my first priorities as chief of police is to be briefed as to what occurred,” and that she was “certainly looking forward to providing a response.”
The Ghaisar family issued a statement Thursday, saying that “After more than 3 years of silence and lack of leadership, we hope that Chief Smith will bring a new era of integrity and transparency to the Park Police with an emphasis on the safety of the community at large." The family called on Smith to begin the internal investigation of the case and fire the two officers.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) issued a statement supporting Smith’s body-camera initiative. “It’s been more than three years since Bijan Ghaisar was shot and killed by U.S. Park Police," Warner said, “and his family is still searching for answers to understand what happened to their son and brother that day. While nothing will bring Bijan back, I am glad to see the new leadership of the Park Police taking steps that could help avert more needless tragedies.”
The Park Police were also criticized for their role in forcefully clearing protesters from the area around Lafayette Square before President Donald Trump walked through the area on his way to St. John’s Church during social justice demonstrations on June 1, 2020. Monahan testified before Congress to defend his officers’ actions. Before that hearing, The Post reported that the Park Police had not recorded any of their radio transmissions on that day because of an improper installation of a new radio system, which Monahan confirmed in his testimony.
Monahan also said the Park Police decided to erect a fence on the north end of Lafayette Square, and “there is 100 percent zero correlation between our operation and the president’s visit to the church.” Monahan said protesters had been violent at the park for three days before June 1, and that his officers were under assault from projectiles again that day. Smith said Thursday she felt Park Police officers “followed established procedures and regulations during the civil unrest.”
People familiar with the selection process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Monahan did not apply for the chief’s position.
“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” said Shawn Benge, deputy director of the Park Service. “Over the coming months, leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in September on the lack of cameras by the Interior Department, said that Smith’s announcement “didn’t come in a vacuum. . . . This is what serious oversight can accomplish.”