Capitol Police Revise Rulebook

Posted June 5, 2009 at 6:19pm

A few months ago, a Capitol Police officer put a man’s cane through an X-ray machine — and found a sword inside.

That weapon might have been overlooked in the past, when officers had few standard procedures to follow when manning Congressional entrances. One officer might let a man with a cane walk through the magnetometer, while another would insist the cane be X-rayed.

Today the rule is clear: The cane gets screened.

It’s just one result of the Capitol Police’s ongoing effort to audit all its policies and procedures, after years of criticism from the Government Accountability Office about its administrative planning.

In recent weeks, the department put in action one of its biggest changes yet. As of May 24, officials restructured the plan for protecting the Capitol, shuffling officers and changing shifts for the first time in a decade.

The changes are mostly “transparent,— police officials said, with officers still posted on-site 24 hours a day.

But Chief Phillip Morse said the new plan provides better protection for the Capitol by putting all officers on three consecutive shifts: day, evening and midnight.

Before, some officers were on the “power shift— from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which overlapped with two other shifts in the middle of the day. Now that shift is gone, allowing the department to beef up the three other shifts and create more specialized units.

“What our orders are — what our duty is — is to analyze or review what [we’re] doing,— Morse said in a recent interview. “If there is something that’s inefficient or ineffective, that needs to be justified or validated.—

Since moving to new shifts, some officers have complained of increased overtime. But Morse and Assistant Chief Dan Nichols said the new schedule actually gives officers more flexibility because they can swap hours with a bigger pool of colleagues.

The union also signed off on the change after the department agreed to give “additional flexibility— to officers who wanted to be reassigned, said Mike Detorie, the Capitol Visitor Center shop steward for the Capitol Police Labor Committee.

Overtime, however, is a continued challenge to the force, costing the department upward of $25 million a year.

Some of that time is for the unexpected — such as late Congressional sessions and demonstrations — but a significant amount is to cover the gaps on a normal day. In fiscal 2008, that meant 405,000 overtime hours to meet “core mission requirements,— according to budget requests.

That’s partly because of the department’s growing responsibilities, officials said. Ten years ago, the force was small and contained, with the main responsibility of guarding the doors to Congressional buildings.

Since then, the department’s mission has consistently grown, with officials keeping tabs on terrorism threats and partnering with federal and local agencies.

On Dec. 2, the Capitol Visitor Center opened — 580,000 square feet that needed to be protected. And soon, the Library of Congress Police Force will merge with the Capitol Police, increasing the department’s reach even more.

“We don’t want to overwork our people unnecessarily,— Nichols said. But he added that the Capitol and its buildings need to be protected, even if that means spending money on overtime.

Reviewing how to best use officers to protect Congressional buildings is a way to strike a balance, he said.

The issue has gotten the attention of Members, and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has asked the GAO to help determine how much overtime is appropriate and how many more officers need to be hired. Right now, the force stands at about 1,800, and Morse is asking for 76 more officers to decrease overtime in fiscal 2010.

“There’s always a question about overtime and staff and whether we’re better off to hire additional people,— said Nelson, who heads the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “We want somebody to help the Capitol Police get through this.—