U.S. Park Police leadership is still failing in its duty to make protection of national monuments a top priority
THREE and a half years ago, the then-chief of the U.S. Park Police, Teresa Chambers, was fired for speaking publicly about cutbacks in staffing and security at this nation's historic landmarks.
Last week, the current chief, Dwight Pettiford, responded to a report that the park police are understaffed, poorly trained and equipped, and suffer from low morale, poor leadership, and bad organization. The essence of his remarks: "Hey, things aren't so bad."
How's that for progress?
The report by the Interior Department's inspector general, part of a continuing analysis of security at federal landmarks, was conducted over several months last year. It concluded that park police failures have left national treasures such as the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Created in 1791, the park police make up the oldest uniformed federal law enforcement agency in the United States. The agency serves as both an urban police department and the chief security provider for national landmarks in the Washington metropolitan area, plus the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
But according to the report, obtained by the Washington Post, the agency has failed to adequately perform either mission, resulting in "deficient security" at national monuments and "an inability to effectively conduct police operations."
Today, the park police include 592 officers, 97 civilian employees, and 30 private security guards, according to the Post. That staffing level, the report says, is lower than it was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Worse, the inspector general's investigation found, officers and security guards hired to augment the force were found to be doing crossword puzzles, talking on cell phones, and, in one case, apparently sleeping in a patrol vehicle instead of attending to their official duties. Also noted in the report were complaints about poor cooperation and communication between police and the private security guards.
In all, the inspector general's office made 40 visits to sites in Washington. On three visits, no officers could be found, while minimum staffing levels were not met on two dozen other visits.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, were Chief Pettiford's lame excuses for the findings. "We've continued to move the mission forward," he told the Post. Where the report complains that police are equipped with old, worn bullet-proof vests and old, high-mileage patrol vehicles, the chief says, "We have new vehicles in the pipeline."
On the question of poor morale, he says, "It depends on who you're talking to When change comes, you're going to see people not accepting change." Finally, to the charge that monuments are not adequately protected, he responded, "They're still standing."
Sounds to us like another version of "mission accomplished."
Evidently, Chief Pettiford has learned well from the dual examples of former Chief Chambers' sacking and the Bush Administration's blinders-on approach to issues as diverse as the Iraq war and the state of the economy.
The U.S. Park Police is a proud agency with a storied history. The monuments it protects are symbols of American freedom and history.
They both deserve better than such a reflexive and self-serving denial.