Cops Get Used to the CVC

Posted December 5, 2008 at 6:15pm

With the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center last week, the Capitol Police department is adjusting to new facilities, new posts and the rigors of protecting an additional 580,000 square feet.

After decades of protecting the same buildings and learning the ebb and flow of visitor traffic, officers will have to guard new entrances, use new equipment and report to new bosses.

Already, some officers are uneasy, complaining of cramped new CVC space and increased overtime.

“You have a new CVC opening, you have basically a brand new division being created, and you have a lot of overtime, away from the family,” said Matt Tighe, chairman of the Capitol Police Labor Committee. “It all combines.”

In some ways, the CVC is supposed to make security more streamlined and efficient. It has state-of-the-art security systems, forces tourists to enter through one secure entrance and includes new screening equipment.

But it’s also the largest-ever expansion to the Capitol, adding not only a 210,000-square-foot visitor center but also more than 300,000 square feet of House and Senate expansion space.

And that means extra work for police. Police officials say that since the CVC opened on Dec. 2, overtime has increased for officers assigned to the Capitol and the CVC, though they wouldn’t give exact figures.

The department, officials stressed, is in a period of “learning and evaluation.” Police are out in full force because officials haven’t yet learned which entrances have the most traffic, for example, or what kind of manpower is necessary.

“We’ve staffed this building for hundreds of years,” Assistant Chief Dan Nichols said as he stood in the Capitol. “We are learning that now for the CVC.”

But overtime hasn’t been the biggest complaint in recent days — instead, the union has focused on the limits of their new space in the CVC.

In the past 10 years, the force has added hundreds of officers and security has increased commensurately. The Capitol Police were sorely in need of new space, and officers looked forward to getting that extra room in the CVC.

They ended up with 10,000 square feet — almost three times the size of their old digs in the Capitol.

Police officials stress that it’s a big step up, yet some officers were nevertheless disappointed with smaller-than-expected locker and break rooms.

But the police department wasn’t the only group that needed more space, and it had to compromise with others who also were cramped in their Capitol quarters, Chief Phillip Morse said.

“Space at the CVC is not just about the Capitol Police,” he said. “Obviously, there are other needs of Congress.”

The department has three spaces: its headquarters on D Street Northeast, offices in the Fairchild Building and workspace in the Capitol. As the department grew into its current force of 1,600 officers, space has become increasingly short.

But of the three offices, the one in the Capitol was perhaps the most crowded. For decades, a few hundred officers and supervisors squeezed into one of the building’s subterranean hallways.

At about 3,600 square feet, the space was much too small. Single rooms were split into two stories to make enough space for officers’ lockers. Two break rooms fit only a handful of tables, and supervisors worked on inches of desk space.

In comparison, the space in the CVC is about 10,200 square feet. The break room is larger and the locker rooms have showers — an amenity that was absent in the Capitol.

Perhaps the biggest improvement is the space for supervisors, who now have offices and a conference room.

But since moving to the new space, officers have complained that during certain times of the day, the break room and locker rooms are crowded.

The space isn’t just for those who once reported to the hallway in the Capitol; a few dozen CVC officers also change, shower and eat there.

In response, Morse has removed a partition to make the break room larger and is working with the police union on other complaints — such as the lack of a wall between the men’s bathrooms and lockers.

At noon on Thursday, after Morse made the changes, the break room was only about half-full.

Such changes help, and Morse has been very responsive to officers’ concerns, Tighe said. But it will nevertheless take time for officers to adjust to life with the CVC.

“It’s almost like starting a new job for some of these guys,” he said.