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Experts Affirm New Cost of Police Radios

Law enforcement experts testified Wednesday that the Capitol Police department’s plan to replace its unreliable radio system seems reasonable in cost and design.

But the price tag of the much-needed upgrade has recently created controversy among Members. It stands at about $70 million — a price jump that caused House appropriators to temporarily halt all plans and order a study into the cost.

On Wednesday, however, Members got largely positive feedback on the plan at a hearing of the House Administration Subcommittee on Capitol Security.

Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials said the Capitol Police seem to have completed the necessary studies and chosen a suitable plan. However, all emphasized that they had only been briefed on the plan and didn’t know the details.

“I think they’re going through the right steps, and I think they’re doing the right thing,” said David Boyd, director of the DHS Command, Control and Interoperability Division.

Members and police officials, alike, agree that the Capitol Police’s radio system is in dire need of an upgrade. Most of the force can’t use their radios to communicate with other law enforcement agencies — a necessity when a plane illegally flies over the Capitol, for example, or if Congress suffers a terrorist attack.

But almost seven years after Sept. 11, 2001, Capitol Police officers are still using analog radios that go dead in some areas and can be tapped into by a store-bought radio scanner.

On Wednesday, Police Chief Phillip Morse told Members that the system doesn’t meet federal standards, such as encryption, and has many issues “that I am unable to discuss publicly.”

The radios, he said, have failures on a “regular basis.”

“When you operate on a system knowing that your system can fail at any time because it has in the past … it does not give you a confident feeling that you can carry out your responsibilities on a daily basis or in an emergency,” Morse said.

The department’s plan includes replacing the analog radio system with a digital one, which would get more channels and would be able to communicate with other agencies.

The department wants to start looking for a vendor soon and get the system up in two years. Funding, however, is a major issue, especially since the legislative branch has had an almost stagnant budget for three years.

Congress has already appropriated $10 million to the radio effort. But police officials can’t start spending it until both the House and Senate Appropriations committees sign off on a plan.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, told Morse to stop the plans and instead study their cost.

She said Morse hadn’t provided sufficient details on why the price for a new radio system had jumped from about $35 million to $70 million.

Wasserman Schultz and Morse planned to meet Wednesday evening to talk over any possible compromise.

In an interview last week, Wasserman Schultz compared the situation to the Capitol Visitor Center, whose budget infamously ballooned by hundreds of millions of dollars. She said she isn’t about to make the same mistake with radios — a viewpoint Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) echoed Wednesday.

“When we get a number, that’s the number,” said Capuano, who is a member of the Subcommittee on Capitol Security. “And it won’t be double, it won’t be triple, it won’t be quadruple that.”

Under Members’ questioning Wednesday, Morse tried to alleviate those fears.

The project’s lower estimate, he said, came from a 2005 study that included a plan to only upgrade the current 25-year-old analog equipment. The new, higher estimate would create a whole new system for digital radios — and that number, he said, hasn’t changed.

Everyone who testified at Wednesday’s hearing agreed that the digital system is the way to go. Upgrading an analog system, they said, would be temporary and insufficient.

“We would be enhancing a system that eventually would be obsolete,” Morse said.

Capuano also brought up a third option, presented in a letter by a private vendor. The letter, sent by Tyco Electronics Corp., recommends that the Capitol Police tap into an already-existing communications system set up by the Department of Defense. That would save the department the high costs of developing a radio system from scratch.

But Boyd and other experts said the system was made for Defense needs, and not for law enforcement agencies such as the Capitol Police.

The Capitol Police, Boyd said, is a unique force that has many specific needs. For example, unlike most law enforcement agencies, Capitol Police use their radios underground and behind thick marble walls. They can’t install equipment in a way that damages the Capitol complex’s historical buildings. And they need to communicate with a wide range of local and federal agencies.

Boyd compared those needs to a law enforcement agency that recently replaced its radios for $86 million.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), expressed his desire to get the upgrade going — even if is expensive. Congress, he said, should have the same security priority as the White House.

“I hope the Congress is not going to nickel and dime its approach to securing the Capitol,” he said.

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