Last month, an alarm went off in a historic building in Arlington National Cemetery after a sprinkler pipe broke. An emergency signal was sent to the U.S. Park Police dispatch center in southeast Washington. But the dispatch center receives security alarms on a separate computer in a closed room adjacent to the dispatchers, and no one heard it. Instead of notifying the fire department and cemetery staff, no one was alerted, resulting in flooding which damaged the building and historical artifacts, an inspector general’s report released Friday said.
The report outlined numerous serious problems with the Park Police dispatch operations center, from the mundane — birds are flying in and covering furniture and computers in their droppings — to the serious: if an officer sounds an emergency signal, the dispatchers cannot automatically identify the officer in trouble. The findings by Interior Department Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt, which also cited lack of training for dispatchers and longstanding staffing issues, led to the conclusion that “these issues jeopardize the safety of officers and the public and create liability risks for the USPP [Park Police].”
The report repeatedly says that complaints by dispatch center employees to Park Police commanders have been ignored. Park Police Chief Pamela Smith, who assumed the top post in February 2021 after years as a commander, said in a statement that she was “dismayed by the unacceptable conditions I saw during a personal inspection of the facility in recent months and that were documented by the Inspector General. Prior to the IG completing its review, I took several actions to correct clear deficiencies and I am taking additional steps to remedy remaining concerns.” She did not specify which deficiencies were corrected.
The head of the Park Police officers’ union said he had not seen the report and declined to comment.
The inspector general launched its report after investigating the June 1, 2020, actions by the Park Police at Lafayette Square in which protesters were pushed out of the area around the park, and President Trump arrived soon after for a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church. That investigation revealed that the Park Police didn’t record any of their radio transmissions from that day. The inspector general then launched a deeper look into the dispatch center, interviewing current and former managers and employees and the current police chain of command.
The Park Police dispatchers generally don’t receive 911 calls from the public, but instead receive transferred calls from local cities or counties when the call applies to national parks or the George Washington or Baltimore-Washington parkways. But the investigation found that the Park Police have no formal agreements with any local jurisdictions defining how calls will be transferred, though their policy requires them to have such agreements.
The “dispatch center’s workspace and equipment were substandard,” the inspector general found, with a roof which leaks rain and appears to have black mold throughout. If the center loses power, the Park Police do not have a dedicated emergency backup location where they could relocate.
“The dispatch center has outdated phone equipment,” the report found, including a lack of enhanced caller ID and the ability to have multiparty calls. Dispatchers told investigators that they were often unable to determine the location of public callers, return calls if the caller is disconnected, or confer with third-party translators for callers who don’t speak English.
And though Park Police officers’ radios have an emergency button to signal that they’re in trouble, dispatchers cannot automatically identify which officer has pressed the emergency button. Instead, the dispatchers must look at a list of numerical radio identifiers to determine which officer is assigned to the radio sending the emergency signal, the report said.
A dispatch manager told the inspector general that the Park Police have the software to automatically identify emergency signals, but it hasn’t been installed. When the inspector general received a complaint about the dispatch center in December 2020, the report said the complaint was referred to the Park Police internal affairs unit, which found possible “safety hazards.” But the internal affairs unit didn’t send its report to the department’s force safety officer, the inspector general found, and employees said the safety issues remained.
Employees also reported that only one dispatcher had the ability to log in to the security system alarms from National Park Service properties, such as the one at Arlington Cemetery, and the only way other dispatchers could monitor the alarms was to check a separate computer in an adjacent room. The dispatchers also reported they did not have the ability to instantly replay radio or phone communications, which might be important in an emergency to rehear a caller’s information.
The employees also told investigators that the electrical circuits in the dispatch center are “overloaded on a daily basis,” sometimes causing temporary failures of critical radio and computer equipment. The inspector general said a third-party inspection of the building in 2018 found it also had inadequate fire suppression equipment, and that wires connecting the radio and computer systems are poorly organized, leading to inadvertent disconnection and other electrical issues. Many of the center’s issues can’t be addressed until new electrical circuits are installed, the report said, which is hampered by continued holes in the roof. The report said that as recently as November “birds continued to enter the dispatch center and leave droppings on dispatcher equipment.”
The dispatch center also faces “serious staffing and training deficiencies,” the report said, and complaints from the center to Park Police administration have been ignored. The lack of staffing has led to Park Police officers being pulled off the streets to handle dispatch duties, the inspector general found.
And while some dispatchers have received training, some have expired certifications “and others have never received any formal training,” the inspector general said. An internal memo sent to Park Police commanders in 2020 said the on-the-job training for dispatchers “makes for a dangerous situation for our police officers and civilian callers,” the report said. Investigators found dispatchers do not receive emergency medical dispatcher training, even though the center regularly receives such calls. Though Park Police leaders told the investigators that such training was “mission critical,” no one had gotten the training as of this month.
“Our force’s readiness requires that everyone work in a safe, structurally sound and functional environment,” Chief Smith said in her statement. She said President Biden’s 2022 budget request calls for an increase in Park Police funding that, in part, “is intended to remedy some of the needs confirmed by this report. When people read a report like this, it may make them feel less confident in our abilities or our commitment, and I take that very seriously. I will do everything I can to ensure that the facilities and equipment that support our officers match their very high level of skill and dedication.”
Charles F. Sams III, the director of the National Park Service, which oversees the Park Police, said in a written response to the report that the park service was working to mitigate the bird infestation and upgrade the conditions of the space, or possibly enter into an agreement to move in with the District’s Office of Unified Communications. Sams said the service would work to ensure minimum staffing and implement necessary training for the dispatchers.