Pope Visit Comes During Tumultuous Time for Capitol Police
Capitol Police is just one of the scores of agencies coordinating a massive security strategy for Pope Francis’ visit to U.S. soil, but its approximately 1,700 sworn officers and 300 civilian staff will be key to keeping the pontiff and the public safe during the pope’s Thursday speech to a joint meeting of Congress.
Members say they are confident in security officials, but the department has been plagued by personnel issues and infighting while planning for the papal visit.
On the day federal and local District of Columbia officials convened to address concerns about security and transit during the pontiff’s visit, likening it to an inauguration, Capitol Police union officials ramped up their efforts to undermine outgoing Chief Kim C. Dine, who plans to retire in January.
The USCP Fraternal Order of Police Labor Committee executive board sent a Sept. 10 letter to the Capitol Police Board expressing “concern that this chief does not want to lead this Agency,” and urging officials to consider Dine’s Aug. 3 retirement announcement immediately effective.
Alleging Dine’s “disdain for the rank and file,” disregard for labor arbitration decisions and “us-versus-them attitude” have poisoned his nearly three-year tenure, the letter obtained by CQ Roll Call suggests Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Frank J. Larkin, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving and Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers should appoint an acting police chief.
“We think a lame-duck chief is a security risk, and he basically hurts the integrity of the department,” Jim Konczos, chairman of the labor committee, said in an interview. But, when asked, Konczos did not identify whom the union might support as a potential successor.
In response to questions about the letter, the Capitol Police Board issued a statement to CQ Roll Call supporting the department.
“The Leadership of the Capitol Police has done a fantastic job of planning for the Pope’s visit to the Capitol. The USCP has worked in concert with all of their law enforcement partners to make sure the event occurs as smoothly as possible,” the board stated. “All of the men and women of the Capitol Police, both sworn and civilian, have stepped up to the challenge of providing a secure environment for this unprecedented event.”
Staffing the visit will likely strain the already-limited Capitol Police funds. Dine indicated at a March appropriations hearing that the visit “goes above and beyond our budget.”
Capitol Police leadership has also been stretched thin since the August exit of the civilian head of the bureau involved in coordinating visits of federal and foreign officials to the Capitol, and planning for demonstrations and protests on the grounds.
Since Ed Welch resigned his position as director of the Mission Assurance Bureau and his No. 2 left for the Agriculture Department, Deputy Chief Yancey Garner has been acting as director, in addition to his leadership of the Protective Services Bureau.
Capitol Police designated a separate papal task force, led by Deputy Chief Chad Thomas, head of the Uniformed Services Bureau, to work around the clock on logistics of the visit. Department sources indicated Welch was not involved in papal planning, and CQ Roll Call’s attempts to reach him after his resignation were not successful.
Lt. Jessica Baboulis said the group has worked “in lockstep with the Secret Service,” the agency in charge of planning and implementing a security strategy for the visit, given its designation as a “National Special Security Event.” Baboulis credited the seven-person group for endless days, nights and weekends of planning, and noted that Thomas had also spearheaded the inaugural task force.
Within days of the Feb. 5 announcement the pope would address Congress, Capitol Police advised that all days off and approved leave for Sept. 22-24 would be canceled for the “all hands on deck” event.
But Konczos said Monday that employees still did not know exactly what time they might have to report to work on the day of the pope’s address. “He doesn’t communicate with the congressional community. He doesn’t communicate with his officers,” Konczos said.
The department downplayed those concerns, pointing out that officers were advised they need to be flexible, as with any major Hill event. On Sept. 8, Capitol Police rolled out a massive online training giving employees an overview of the operational plan, timeline of events, street closures, threat assessment, medical response procedures, protocol and other information.
Baboulis said the papal task force has conducted 103 briefings over 57 business days, for congressional oversight committees, the Capitol police board and other partners. Chiefs of staff for each congressional office were invited to two specific briefings.
House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., said she has not personally been briefed on security, but said she has confidence in security officials. “I know that the sergeant-at-arms has been — I mean, they’ve had several walk-throughs, more than several,” Miller said on Sept. 17. “I think they are just doing everything that they possibly can. But I really, personally, have not been briefed on all the various law enforcement, etc.”
Rep. Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., has “talked to everybody,” the ranking member of the committee said when asked if he has been briefed by Capitol security officials on the pope’s visit.
“I’m always apprehensive, but confident,” Brady said on Sept. 17. “But I do have confidence in our Capitol Police and our Secret Service. And I do think, I do hope, that everything will be OK.”
Despite the union’s concerns, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other lawmakers with jurisdiction over security agencies expressed similar trust in safety preparations.
“The Capitol Police and Sergeants at Arms have done an outstanding job in putting together a security plan for the Pope’s visit. The Speaker values their hard work and is confident our visitors and staffers will enjoy a secure and successful event,” Boehner spokeswoman Emily Schillinger said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
Like Capitol Police, the Secret Service has been plagued by a change in leadership and frustration among rank-and-file officers over the past year. But lawmakers with jurisdiction over the agency also expressed confidence that the pope’s visit will go smoothly.
“I think I always have concerns about the security,” said Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “But I’ve got a fair amount of faith in the Secret Service. I was actually talking to [Homeland Security] Secretary Jeh Johnson about this as well. I know he’s on the case. So I think we’ll be fine.”