If anyone was likely to end up on the losing end of Washington’s budget-cutting sequester, it was the U.S. Park Police.
The tiny force of 641 sworn officers, who patrol national parkland and monuments in the Washington area, New York City and San Francisco, has a part-time lobbyist. The only member of Congress inclined to fight for their interests doesn’t have a vote. The police are resigned to being mistaken for park rangers and District cops.
So when everyone from the mounted unit to the chief was told to stay home for at least 12 days this spring and summer, the furloughs got little attention — even though the police were the only uniformed federal law enforcement officers to face the indignity of being told they are not essential.
That changed Friday, when the National Park Service, the police’s parent agency, announced furloughs will end June 1. The comptroller found savings to offset 12 unpaid days. The decision didn’t prevent staffing shortages over the busy Memorial Day weekend, though the Park Service says security hasn’t been compromised.
Pressure had been building on Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to cut the unpaid days. It came largely from the police officers themselves, who waged a scrappy public relations war against their boss to force his hand.
Their victory is further proof that the ironclad budget cut that Congress claimed would spread pain evenly to every corner of the government is, to say the least, pliable. Not just by politically connected meat inspectors or air traffic controllers, who were among those able to escape furloughs, but by a small band of overlooked police officers.
“The devotion and hard work everybody put into this, it’s great,” Officer Anthony McSherry said after hearing the news.
McSherry, like everyone, had taken three furlough days, a $1,380 hit to his paycheck that he won’t get back. He took a part-time job at the Cineplex in Anne Arundel County, hunting down digital pirates at movie premieres.
McSherry was an accountant before he was a cop and is now the union treasurer. He’s skeptical by nature, but in the case of the furloughs, he is leaving well enough alone.
“How they did this will be a mystery forever, trust me,” he said.
The national parks have slashed seasonal and full-time hiring and pared many visitor services to absorb a $153 million cut. But no one was furloughed, which was galling to the police.
Jarvis said his staff began scouring the Park Police budget before the sequester kicked in March 1 to find $5 million the police had to lose this fiscal year, a 5 percent cut. Furloughs were the only choice, he said, because the bulk of the police budget is salaries.
But two weeks ago, he sent the comptroller in to dig deeper. He called the process “forensic accounting.”
It was right about then that Ian Glick was starting to get traction. Glick, 40, is the extroverted chairman of the Park Police unit of the Fraternal Order of Police. Four days a week he’s on union business, and the fifth he patrols the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
When furloughs seemed inevitable in February, he started calling congressional offices, scheduling meetings with anyone he could. He said furloughs would deplete staffing on every shift, compromising safety for officers and the public. Response times would be delayed, especially during the summer tourist season.
Glick got a lot of sympathy from Hill staffers. But lawmakers had other constituents — defense contractors, the meat industry, cancer researchers — with high-priced lobbyists knocking on their doors looking for a way to break through the sequester.
“Everyone has been very sympathetic to our situation,” Glick said a few weeks ago. But all he got was a lot of Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the budget mess.
“I told them, I don’t care about the partisan side of this,” Glick recalled. “I’m here to solve a problem.”
To make matters worse, Jarvis, the park director, had assured a congressional committee in April that “the sequestration impacts are not compromising our responsibility for icon security” — as in the monuments would be safe even though officers protecting them would take a pay hit.
The union started circulating a YouTube video clip of Jarvis’s testimony to the rank and file. Many were incredulous at their boss’s claim.
“It’s instilled in us in the academy, ‘We’re essential personnel, you have to come to work,’ ” said Officer Matthew Manning, a rookie from Silver Spring who works nights on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
“People are going to bat for the meat inspectors and air traffic controllers,” he said from behind the wheel of his cruiser earlier this month. “But it feels like they’ve turned their backs on us.”
Glick told his members that Jarvis could ask Congress for permission to shift money from the Park Service budget to the police. That’s how things had worked for air traffic controllers. Four days after furloughs started and flight delays created a political disaster, the unpaid days were history. Congress also gave the meat inspectors a reprieve after the industry and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack complained that slaughterhouses would shut down.
Jarvis said he did ask — and was turned down.
Glick, meanwhile, was saying on television and radio that the furloughs were jeopardizing public safety. The union found an ally in Police Chief Teresa Chambers, who kept a low profile. But 10 days ago, she issued a directive prohibiting officers from responding to nonessential calls during the last hour of their shift because the call might necessitate overtime.
The only member of Congress to meet directly with Glick was Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the House’s nonvoting representative from the District of Columbia. She questioned why, fresh from the Boston bombings, the government was furloughing a police force with a “mammoth” jurisdiction around Washington.
On Wednesday, she wrote to House and Senate appropriators, citing “clear public safety concerns” and asking them to allow the Park Service to shift money to the police.
“You would think the Park Police would be of greater interest,” Norton said.
By Thursday, with the media still nipping at his heels, Jarvis broke from a family vacation in New York to convene an emergency conference call with his executive staff. His comptroller had found money to stop the furloughs.
The three days that officers already took saved $1 million. The rest came from cuts to overtime pay, travel, planned equipment purchases and training budgets, all of which produced more savings than anticipated in March. And an annual payment from a revenue-producing trust that manages the Presidio in San Francisco had somehow not made it into the police budget, Jarvis said. Their efforts were not driven by pressures inside or outside the agency, Jarvis said.
“No one knows how they did it,” Norton said. “If you’re lucky, you can find ways to make your numbers work. They obviously found a way.”
Glick thinks that growing media interest and Norton helped motivate the agency to find that way, but on Friday, he wasn’t dwelling on any of it.
“I’m just relieved, that’s all,” he said.
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