Less than three years after the Capitol Police Department acquired its $1.6 million mobile command vehicle, the unit has been sidelined as “mechanically and structurally unsound for service,” apparently burdened with too much equipment to operate safely.
The gaffe has drawn criticism from Congressional appropriators already questioning the agency’s spending habits, and lawmakers refused to include in the fiscal 2005 omnibus appropriations bill the $200,000 requested by the department for maintenance to the vehicle.
“It just seems like a metaphor for what’s been going on at this organization for the last couple of years,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), ranking member on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said in a telephone message Thursday. “It’s just so overloaded that it isn’t functioning.”
According to Moran, a review of the mobile command unit, purchased by the department in June 2002, showed the chassis separating from the vehicle’s body. Capitol Police officials removed the vehicle from service on Nov. 1, and it now sits idle in a Government Printing Office parking garage.
“The idea that you would pay this kind of money, taxpayer money … that you would pay that kind of money and load it up so much that you can’t even use it, it’s just surreal,” Moran said.
The vehicle, furnished with communications equipment such as telephones and video cameras, is designed for use as an emergency command center but also can be employed for large-scale, high-security events such as the State of the Union address.
In the report accompanying the fiscal 2005 spending bill, Congressional appropriators note that Capitol Police officials have been aware of the vehicle’s dilemma for some time.
“The conferees are concerned that, since November 2003, the USCP have been aware of major mechanical structural problems with the vehicle and did not inform the Committees,” the report states.
Under the legislation, the law enforcement agency will be required to provide House and Senate appropriators with a report examining “the economics of continuing the use of the Capitol Police command vehicle” in early February 2005.
“We’re still currently reviewing options to get this fixed for service,” said Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford, a department spokeswoman.
While appropriators explicitly referenced the command vehicle in their fiscal 2005 appropriations report, they also raised concerns about the agency’s overall spending patterns.
“The conferees are very concerned that the Chief of the Capitol Police has made operational decisions, which necessitated levels of spending in excess of funds appropriated, without consultation with the Committees,” the report states.
Earlier this year, the Capitol Police erected more than a dozen vehicle checkpoints across Capitol Hill and extended officers to 12-hour shifts, in response to a Homeland Security Department warning citing potential terrorist threats to financial institutions in Washington, D.C., New York and New Jersey.
Estimates provided by the Capitol Police to the House Appropriations panel put costs for those operations at approximately $40 million through mid-January, although the department dismantled the permanent checkpoints in mid-November in favor of randomly deployed vehicle stops. The initial estimate, however, amounts to an additional $28.6 million over the agency’s fiscal 2004 budget.
In response, lawmakers inserted a provision in the appropriations report requiring the agency to submit quarterly budget reports to House and Senate lawmakers.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, described the provision as a “common practice” and said it will allow lawmakers to review spending for future budgeting decisions.