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Interior Dept. creates task force to study its police departments, with former Park Police chief as chair

Secretary Deb Haaland responds to report on Lafayette Square episode with move to improve trust, oversight in Interior police forces

U.S. Park Police are seen in Lafayette Square as demonstrators gathered to protest the death of George Floyd in June 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is forming a task force to review the practices and policies of all the law enforcement bureaus in her department, after a recent report on the U.S. Park Police’s handling of protesters in Lafayette Square last year found problems with that agency’s communications both internally and with other agencies involved in clearing the square.

Haaland named former Park Police chief Robert D. MacLean, now the director of Interior’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security, to lead the task force. MacLean was head of the Park Police for six years, including in 2017, when two officers fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in a residential neighborhood of Fairfax County. For nearly two years, MacLean refused to release the officers’ names or any information about the slaying and would not discuss it publicly. In 2019, he was promoted to his current post overseeing all of Interior’s police forces. In 2020, the officers were indicted on a charge of manslaughter but remain on the force and have pleaded not guilty.

In a memo issued Wednesday, Haaland began by citing the inspector general’s report examining the Park Police’s actions on June 1, 2020, in clearing Lafayette Square minutes before President Donald Trump walked through the park for a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church. The report concluded that the Park Police did not launch the operation to assist Trump, but instead to clear space for a fence to be erected around the park because protesters had been throwing projectiles at officers during days of demonstrations. The report found that the Park Police did not use tear gas that day, but D.C. police did. The inspector general is preparing a separate report on whether the Park Police used force appropriately on protesters who were removed from the park.

Report: Park Police didn’t clear Lafayette Square protesters for Trump visit

The report found that the Park Police did not adequately warn protesters before using officers in tactical equipment and on horseback to push protesters away and does not have a detailed dispersal warning policy. It also found that the Park Police were unable to communicate with the Secret Service by radio, and that its radio system did not record Park Police transmissions that day. Then-acting chief Gregory Monahan testified last year before Congress that the radio system, installed in 2018 when MacLean was chief, had not recorded any transmissions during special events since its purchase.

MacLean referred questions to the agency’s public affairs office. MacLean’s successor, Pamela A. Smith, announced in May that the Park Police would begin adopting body cameras. About 1,000 park rangers and 600 Fish and Wildlife officers already use them, according to congressional testimony in September.

In a response to the inspector general’s report, Haaland said she was directing her leadership team to establish a task force to “review and identify opportunities for improvement in our Bureaus’ law enforcement programs.” In her memo to Interior leaders Wednesday, the secretary said that the task force will focus on ways to “(1) strengthen trust in our law enforcement programs; (2) ensure appropriate policy and oversight is implemented; and (3) ensure supportive resources are available for officer mental health, wellness, and safety.”

Read Secretary Haaland's memo

The Interior Department has law enforcement officers in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Park Police, which falls under the Park Service. A Justice Department census of all full-time federal law enforcement officers as of 2016 found Interior had 3,630 officers, about half of them National Park Service Rangers. The Park Police was listed as having 560 sworn officers. The Park Police recently declined to say what its current staffing is.

Larry Cosme, the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said his group welcomed the review. “I think it’s a good way to maintain the safety of law enforcement overall,” Cosme said, “by using best practices and techniques for the safety of the public. We also appreciate knowing that law enforcement has a seat at the table” for the task force, and he said MacLean is “a great leader and he’ll do an outstanding job as usual.”

“This is an extremely high priority for me,” Haaland wrote in her memo. She said each bureau would name one law enforcement member to the task force by July 28 to serve full time for up to 18 months. The task force will also involve experts from the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights and from the Office of Human Capital.

“I am confident,” Haaland wrote, “that this Department-wide approach will identify meaningful solutions to assist law enforcement and communities in strengthening trust and collaboration, while ushering the nation into the next phase of community-focused law enforcement.”