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Advocates Still Hope for Federal Protective Service Overhaul

Fall’s Navy Yard tragedy led members of Congress to take a closer look at the privately contracted security forces standing guard at about 9,600 facilities across the federal landscape.

Though the Federal Protective Service, which relies on about 13,500 of those guards, was not responsible for the facility where the Sept. 16 shooting took place, Homeland Security committees in both chambers are examining the FPS with renewed scrutiny.

During hearings called in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, members questioned why the FPS, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, has not yet acted on a number of recommendations from the Government Accountability Office.

Between 2010 and 2012, the GAO made 26 recommendations relating to FPS risk assessment programs and oversight of guards’ training, certifications and qualifications. The agency accepted half of those recommendations during fiscal 2013, FPS Director Eric Patterson told a Senate panel in December.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., hopes to seize the renewed interest in federal facility security while the Navy Yard tragedy is still fresh in lawmakers’ minds. She called a September 2013 GAO report highlighting the lack of training on X-ray and magnetometer equipment and active shooter response, “the final straw” during a recent interview and said she plans to introduce a bill to overhaul the FPS early this year.

Details are still being hashed out, but Norton hopes to clarify how the FPS is monitored, require more transparency in the way each facility organizes its security and define the legal authority of contract guards.

“They are your first responders. However, they have no more arrest authority than you or I,” she said.

Recent legislative history suggests Norton might face an uphill battle to change the agency. Bills to overhaul the FPS have been proposed in both chambers every year since 2010. Former Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., moved a bill to modernize the FPS through the committee in 2010 and 2012, but the full Senate never voted on the bill.

Former House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who now serves as ranking member on the committee, reintroduced an FPS overhaul bill in February 2013. He sponsored the nearly identical versions of the legislation in the 111th and 112th Congresses.

“It has been 18 years since the Alfred P. Murrah building was attacked in Oklahoma City,” he stated when introducing the most recent bill. “We have been fortunate that an attack of this magnitude has not occurred against a federal building in the intervening years. That said, we must do more to ensure that federal buildings are secure and that the Federal Protective Service can effectively fulfill its mission.”

His bill has attracted nine Democratic co-sponsors, but no action has been scheduled.

The House Homeland Security Committee currently has two ongoing GAO reports requested on the FPS and continues to do oversight, but it has not introduced legislation at this time, according to a committee aide who spoke on background about prospects for an overhaul.

No FPS overhaul proposals have been introduced in the Senate, but Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and ranking member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., may address the issue soon.

“Chairman Carper and his staff continue to explore solutions to help make our federal facilities more secure and better protect federal employees and he hopes to determine next steps early next year,” a committee spokesman said in an email.

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