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U.S. Park Police Chief Pamela Smith retires after one year on the job

No reason given for departure after 24-year career in Park Police; problems remain, officers say

Pamela Smith, chief of the U.S. Park Police, speaks during a news conference on Feb. 28 in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Pamela A. Smith, who was named chief of the U.S. Park Police in February of last year, abruptly retired Friday after 24 years in the department. No reason was given for her departure.

Smith, 54, had been a longtime commander in the department and was the first Black woman to lead the agency in its 231-year history. She had previously been the first woman to lead the Park Police’s New York field office, and she had been deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division and the Field Operations Division. Park Police officers are stationed in federal parks in and around the District, New York City and San Francisco.

When Smith took the job, she inherited a troubled department, with issues that had been becoming increasingly public in recent months. It was unclear Friday night how much progress had been made in addressing these issues.

In February, the Interior Department’s inspector general issued a harsh report on the state of the Park Police’s dispatch center in southeast Washington, which it said police commanders had ignored for years. The report said automated emergency alarms are sent to a room separate from the dispatchers that they cannot hear, allowing a flood at Arlington National Cemetery to go unaddressed, that dispatchers are poorly trained and understaffed, and that mold and bird droppings are rampant in the building.

Report says Park Police dispatch center has outdated equipment, mold, inability to monitor alarms

And on Wednesday, the Park Police officers’ union filed a five-page complaint with the inspector general saying the agency was “engaged in gross negligence and mismanagement at great risk to the safety of the public due to understaffing of sworn personnel.” The Fraternal Order of Police’s Park Police Labor Committee said staffing for the three field offices had dropped from about 639 officers to 494 officers, lower than the force size in 1975.

The complaint said that Smith decided in February to cancel certain days off “to fill the massive holes in even bare minimum law enforcement coverage. … Under the current staffing system, every officer is basically on call, all the time and there is no end in sight." The complaint, signed by union chairman Kenneth Spencer, said the San Francisco office, which mainly protects the Presidio park, is down to 33 officers from a previous staffing of 83.

Then on Thursday, the union filed a 25-page grievance with Smith, citing the dispatch center problems and the understaffing as matters that put officers in danger. “The Department of Interior/National Park Service does not give our current Chief, Pamela Smith, the tools she needs.” the grievance says, “to make the USPP successful and provide quality law enforcement service to the public in San Francisco, New York, and the Washington Metropolitan Area.”

Spencer was surprised by the Friday evening announcement. “This is news to us,” Spencer said. “It’s unfortunate because we were hoping to accomplish some things together, with her being a former union executive. But unfortunately that’s not going to happen now, so we wish her well in whatever her future endeavors are.”

Smith did not respond to an email Friday seeking comment. She sent an email to the department at 5:30 p.m. Friday announcing her departure, without giving a reason. “I look forward to seeing many of you in the coming weeks as I cap off an extraordinary career,” Smith wrote.

Smith’s announcement said her resignation would be effective April 30.

Deputy Chief Christopher Stock was appointed interim chief.

When Smith was appointed last year, she said she was going to implement body-worn cameras for the department, which had no cameras in its cars or on its officers. Last May, Smith announced that San Francisco officers would begin wearing such cameras by the end of 2021. Spencer said Friday that they are now wearing them.

U.S. Park Police to begin wearing body cameras in San Francisco, say they’ll be in N.Y. and D.C. by year’s end

The only other federal officers that currently use body cameras are rangers in the National Park Service and officers in the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to testimony and information gathered by the House Natural Resources Committee last fall. The Justice Department — with more than 43,000 sworn agents in the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Marshals Service — does not use body-worn or in-car cameras.

Smith followed two chiefs with somewhat stormy tenures. She replaced former chief Robert D. MacLean, who was promoted in August 2019 to head the Interior Department’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security, and who maintained a strict silence over the 2017 slaying of unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar by two Park Police officers in Fairfax County. MacLean refused to release any information about the shooting, or address the Ghaisar family’s allegations of poor treatment by his officers while trying to see Ghaisar as he lay in a coma.

In a news conference after she was appointed, Smith said that “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.” But the Ghaisars said they never heard from her.

Pamela Smith named chief of U.S. Park Police

In November, the Interior Department served notice on the officers involved, Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya, that they would be fired within 30 days. Smith told officers in roll-call meetings that she was not consulted on the move, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post, and that she supported the union’s opposition to the move. A lawyer for the officers noted that firing the officers without due process violated multiple aspects of their union contract, and the officers remain on the department, on administrative leave with pay. Manslaughter charges against them, filed in 2020, were dismissed by a federal judge in October, but Fairfax prosecutors are appealing that.

Acting Chief Gregory Monahan served after MacLean, and oversaw the Park Police’s actions as they aggressively pushed protesters out of Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, in advance of a visit to St. John’s Church by then-President Donald Trump for a photo opportunity. Monahan testified before Congress, and an inspector general’s report later confirmed, that the Park Police did not act on Trump’s behalf, but instead were moving to expand a protective perimeter for officers in the park.

Monahan also confirmed that the Park Police had no recordings of their communications on that day, and that a newly purchased radio system had not been properly configured to record transmissions. The officers in the Ghaisar case have said they were riding together the night of the shooting because of problems with the radio system.