From aiding tourists to fighting terror Capitol Police move from small-town past into violent present

Capitol Memorial Service

July 29, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Capitol Police Officer John Novak gazes past the cars and tourists and legislative aides on Independence Avenue and rests his eyes on the Capitol.

"See that dome right there?" says Novak, 31, squinting at the gleaming white building before sweeping a hand through his blond crewcut. "It's a big magnet. It attracts crazies."

It is a lesson this police force grasped in the most visceral way last week, when the Capitol Police force suffered the first line-of-duty fatalities in its 170-year history. The deaths of Officer Jacob J. Chestnut and Detective John M. Gibson underscore how this tourist-friendly force, in many ways a throwback to small-town police, is colliding with modern-day threats of terrorism and with pressures to turn Washington into a fortress.

Chestnut and Gibson, whose bodies lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda yesterday, lived out both the old and new missions of the department. Chestnut, 58, was a traditional officer who considered helping tourists as much a part of his job as guarding a Capitol entrance. Gibson, 42, came from the modern undercover side of the department, which has trained increasing numbers of officers to act as bodyguards for lawmakers as they move through the public.

Over the years, the 1,075-officer force has become more professional, sending officers in elite units to train with the FBI and military specialists. The attitude has also shifted: With each outbreak of terrorism, the Capitol has responded with tighter controls.

"It's not a job like it used to be. People used to say you'd just look at the roaches all night," said Thomas Galifaro, 60, a 25-year veteran of the force who retired in 1992.

"Now it's much more intense. You're very aware of all the dangers and no one is taking any threats with a grain of salt, as though it comes with being in Congress. Not anymore."

The Capitol Police is one of many law enforcement agencies jammed onto Capitol Hill -- from the Library of Congress Police to the Park Police to the Supreme Court Police. The Capitol Police is the only force charged with protecting lawmakers in the 40-block perimeter around the Capitol and anywhere members of Congress travel in the United States.

The department, with about 800 uniformed and 275 plainclothes officers, also responds to crime around House and Senate buildings -- from Capitol Hill murders to racial threats against Hill staff members. They train for 18 weeks -- part of the time at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. -- with salaries ranging from $33,484 to $47,281.

Even as the force has changed to suit violent times, its members have resisted a cool Secret Service-style approach that keeps outsiders at a distance.

Helping little old ladies

The Monday after the shooting, Capitol Police were busy with what they always do. "Look at this guy," Novak said, pointing to an officer escorting a woman with a walker. "He's helping a little old lady across the street. You're doing a little more tour-guide type of thing -- you're helping people out -- and you want to do that. It makes you feel good."

Officers are told not to act like cowboys. Those with little tact or diplomacy do not last long, nor do those who stand poised with a hand over their holster. Even the dogs in the Capitol Police canine unit are said to be friendlier than other agencies' police dogs.

The training is unique. Capitol Police are tested with flash cards to recognize the faces of key members of Congress and brush up on the legislators after every election. They practice their shooting skills in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, closing themselves into a chamber with bullet-resistant walls while lawmakers do business above.

One officer said new recruits are sent on scavenger hunts throughout the catacombs and serpentine hallways of Capitol Hill buildings, locating obscure spots visited by lawmakers. New police officers are taught the difference between a whip and a caucus chairman and educate themselves in the issues of the day that occupy members of Congress.

The Capitol Police force is getting younger: It is now recruiting on college campuses. In the 1970s, the force took on many retired military, including Chestnut, an Air Force veteran. Both Chestnut and Gibson served 18 years in a job that often attracts long-timers.

Indeed, many are fiercely devoted. Retired Sgt. Joe Powell, 58, who served as the one-person security detail for former House Speaker Thomas Foley, said he tailored his life around that job. When Foley wore a tuxedo, so did he. When Foley had a meeting, Powell sat in on it. When Foley swam at the University Club at 6: 15 most mornings, Powell jumped in, too.

"I was prepared to die for him," said Powell, a 29-year veteran.

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