Capitol Hill’s rank-and-file police officers got a chance to address the people they protect at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, and they used the opportunity to tell Members that Congress still has a few holes in its massive security net.
In particular, a representative of the Government Printing Office Police Labor Committee testified that the former public printer’s move to save money by reducing the number of GPO Police and hiring private security guards has not only put the GPO and its employees at risk but left the agency’s most sensitive work — the production of passports — vulnerable.
Committee members were troubled by what they heard.
Private security guards who have been employed with increasing regularity and cost at the GPO “do not have the training, the experience, or the wherewithal to protect that building,” GPO Police labor committee chairman Alvin Hardwick said in his testimony before the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch.
Hardwick, who represents a police force that has shrunk from 65 officers in 1997 to just 27 officers today, called the GPO’s security gaps “astounding.” He noted that there isn’t a GPO officer available to provide “even a modicum of security” in a GPO garage where several Capitol Police hazardous material response vehicles are stored.
Hardwick said that what’s happening at the GPO is not unique in federal law enforcement.
“Over the past few years we have seen a gradual shift of responsibilities, manpower, and funding away from the highly trained and highly professional federal law enforcement officers to unqualified and poorly trained contract security guards,” he said.
A GPO spokesman said Tuesday that Congress granted the agency the authority to run its security operations with a mixture of uniformed police officers and private “special police.”
“Current GPO police officers maintain a response capability and an Officer-in-Charge is responsible for all daily security operations and GPO is using armed special police officers for access control to GPO buildings,” agency spokesman Gary Somerset wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “GPO believes this combination of resources meets our current security needs in the short term. For the longer term, the GPO is evaluating the overall GPO security force level and what are personnel required. This plan will take into consideration these forecasts, our budget capability, and any changes in security requirements that may occur, including any change in the disposition of GPO’s current buildings.”
But subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the security situation that Hardwick described “blows my mind.”
“We shouldn’t be having security guards guarding the 2 million passports that are produced by GPO every month,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We’ve been so focused following 9/11 on improving our homeland security that this seems like a pretty gaping hole to have people who are not sworn police officers protecting” passports.
As the head of a subcommittee that didn’t exist during the 109th Congress, Wasserman Schultz called Tuesday’s hearing to provide nine of the unions who represent workers on Capitol Hill — including three police labor committees — a chance to have a say in the fiscal 2008 appropriations cycle.
She said she wanted to hear about “the issues that are important to each of the organizations representing employees, the issues we did not get a chance to hear necessarily from the leadership and management of the legislative branch organizations” when they testified before the subcommittee earlier this year.
During his testimony Tuesday, Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman Andy Maybo called on Congress to help his officers obtain a retirement benefits package that is more in line with that of other local police agencies and also asked Members to appropriate funds to provide the department with a new, more secure radio system.
The department’s current radio system has a limited communication range and doesn’t allow Capitol Police to talk with other local police agencies and fire departments, Maybo said, something that would be essential in the event of a terrorist attack or other major disaster.
During an appropriations hearing earlier this year, Capitol Police brass had voiced the need for a new, interoperable radio system, but Chief Phillip Morse did not request funding in his fiscal 2008 budget for the new system because, he said, the department is focusing on fiscal stability and completing an inventory of all current resources.
Morse has said replacing the now 20-year-old radio system would cost about $35 million and take up to three years to complete.
But Maybo stressed that the replacement process needs to begin now.
“The Capitol Police communications system is lacking the technological advances which allow us to have secure transmissions,” Maybo said. “In fact, anyone visiting or who resides on Capitol Hill can purchase a scanner for less than $100 and listen to everything we have to say.”
Wasserman Schultz, who previously had said she wanted to deal with the radio issue in the fiscal 2008 appropriations cycle rather than include funding for the new system in the emergency supplemental spending bill, indicated Tuesday that she might reconsider that stance following President Bush’s veto of the bill. She said that in recent weeks the Capitol Police Department has completed its inventory of resources in an effort to “put its fiscal house in order” and when the Appropriations Committee takes another look at the emergency supplemental bill she might now be more willing to include funding for the radios.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who has been an advocate for replacing the radio system as soon as possible, said he was pleased by Wasserman Schultz’s agreement to look at the issue again.
“When the Capitol Police union representatives say that they believe it’s not a matter of if the Capitol gets hit by terrorism it’s a matter of when, and we know the radios are so sorely needed for just adequate communication … that’s got to be the most pressing issue,” Wamp said. “The sooner we make that happen the better we’re going to be prepared for whatever event they say is just a matter of time.”
The Library of Congress Labor Committee asked for Congressional support in its agency’s long-awaited merger with the Capitol Police, but Mike Hutchins, who chairs the LOC Police union, asked that no officers be left behind in the process.
“We hope that all Library of Congress Police officers will be afforded the opportunity to transition to the United States Capitol Police, and be allowed to continue to serve as police officers until such time that they are entitled to an unreduced annuity,” Hutchins said.
Since a full merger between the two forces was first mandated in the fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, various plans have been proposed for how best to affect the process. The latest merger plan discussed by Capitol Police and Congress last year would leave behind about 10 officers mainly because of age restrictions by the Capitol Police.
Meanwhile as the merger process drags on into its fourth year, Hutchins said morale has suffered as LOC Police careers “have been place in a state of suspense.”
As she left the hearing, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) expressed her hope that the subcommittee could put an end to the continued delays that have plagued the merger until now.
Wasserman Schultz promised to meet with Capitol Police brass and representatives from the Government Accountability Office, who originally studied the need for a merger, to talk about the ongoing effort. She also noted that a future merger plan might even include the GPO Police in its scope.
“I want to know why [the GPO Police] wasn’t” included in the original merger proposal, Wasserman Schultz said. “I can’t imagine what the reason would be why we wouldn’t complete the merger and make security seamless through the whole Capitol complex.”