Other agencies drain Capitol Police

Rising security demands result in competition for experienced officers

August 21, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - There are fewer fully trained police officers posted at the U.S. Capitol complex now than there were on Sept. 11.

That day, as officers evacuated the Capitol and surrounding office buildings amid rumors of another airplane-turned-bomb headed for the dome, 1,209 officers were on the force.

Yesterday, U.S. Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols said there were 1,228 "on staff," but 48 of those are recruits training in Glynco, Ga., to join the department at the end of the month.

The Capitol Police is facing a staff crunch that is the direct result, officers and officials say, of an extraordinary recruitment effort by the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The agency's offers of high salaries - up to $80,800 - and generous retirement benefits have lured experienced officers away from comparable posts elsewhere in the federal government.

"We need to stop the bleeding as far as being raided by other agencies," said Michael C. DeCarlo, a Capitol Police officer and the chairman of the department's labor committee at the Fraternal Order of Police.

"We need a lot of people. There's no way to go without manpower," DeCarlo said.

Right now, the bodies just aren't there.

A total of 139 officers - just over 11 percent - have left the Capitol Police force since Sept. 11, 107 of them to join other law enforcement departments and 64 of those to join the TSA.

They left behind a police department scrambling to pick up the pieces through recruitment and training efforts, and a smaller and less-experienced force to confront new threats.

Nor is the Capitol's police department the only federal force to feel the strain. The demand for transportation security officers has hit other agencies, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol to the U.S. Park Police.

But the Capitol Police has felt the effects particularly strongly because it is a relatively small force where a few defections can make a major dent in operations.

"Across the board, federal law enforcement is being stretched very thin. The duties are increasing, and people are being forced to do more with less," said Louis Cannon, a U.S. Mint Police inspector and the president of the D.C. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"You're taking a rubber band and you're stretching it - sooner or later, the rubber band is going to break."

Bidding war

The trend has touched off a bidding war among federal agencies for qualified law enforcement personnel, and so far, the Capitol Police seems to be losing. The department's starting salary of $39,429 is far less than the $60,000 to $70,000 that officers say the TSA has routinely been offering.

Congress is moving to close the gap. Both the House and Senate included a 5 percent pay raise for the Capitol Police - on top of a 4.1 percent increase for federal employees overall - in their versions of a bill to fund the legislative branch for the coming fiscal year.

"It's not good for security," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who pushed the pay raise. "It harms their efficiency and effectiveness. We've been working these officers too long and too many days."

Still, the creation of the TSA in November - and a congressional mandate that federal air marshals be deployed on flights within 30 days - touched off a pattern familiar to law enforcement experts: agencies recruiting on the backs of other departments.

"The Capitol Police are very highly regarded ... so the fact that they're having this dilemma is not a reflection of the caliber of the department, but a reflection of the seriousness of the problem," said Sheldon F. Greenberg, the director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University. "These issues have been around for a long, long time. What Sept. 11 did was make some people pay attention to them."

Something different

The federal air marshal position drew 200,000 applicants. It seemed an obvious fit for experienced law enforcement personnel looking for something different and more lucrative.

"It's interesting work, work that's presenting a new challenge, and the people we're getting are those people who are interested in new challenges - moving upwards, outwards, onwards in their careers," said David S. Steigman, a spokesman for the agency.

"We are mounting a very, very aggressive hiring and training program," Steigman said. The department has hired about 16,500 of the 30,000 baggage and passenger screeners that Congress ordered the agency to tap by Nov. 19. That's 1,000 new screeners a week.

Those who are left behind are feeling the adverse effects of a force being drained of seasoned professionals.

"We've lost a lot of talent and experience when these officers left. It's very hard to overcome," said Nichols, the Capitol Police spokesman. "While we can replace the bodies, we can't replace those years on the job and all the training we've put into these people."

Manpower is a problem, too.

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