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Invisible to most Americans, Park Police now in the spotlight

'This is not the way to do crowd control,' a former National Park Service official said of the June 1 U.S. Park Police actions at Lafayette Square

U.S. Park Police at Lafayette Square as demonstrators gathered on June 2.
U.S. Park Police at Lafayette Square as demonstrators gathered on June 2. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

More than two weeks after the U.S. Park Police and other federal law officers forcefully cleared Lafayette Square of protesters, allowing President Donald Trump to pose for pictures with a Bible in hand, the department is under scrutiny from Congress and the public over its tactics and independence.

Some Democratic senators and House members are demanding information from the agency. A provision from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., D-Va., in a broader police reform package would require federal police, including the Park Police, to wear body cameras. 

“It was jarring,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a former deputy chief of staff at the Interior Department, the parent agency of the Park Police, said of the Lafayette Square clearing. 

Lee-Ashley recalled how in 2012, the Park Police took hours to clear an encampment of Occupy DC activists from McPherson Square in downtown Washington. 

By contrast, the June 1 charge was a jolt, he said. “It was this abrupt assault on peaceful protesters,” he said. “It struck me as out of character for the Park Police.”

Because the Park Police has jurisdiction over President’s Park, which encompasses the Ellipse south of the White House and Lafayette Square Park to the north, it has been involved in policing protests that have become fixtures in Washington since the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in May.

Following widespread criticism of the response, acting U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory T. Monahan said in a June 13 statement that more than 50 officers had been injured in protests since May 29.

The Park Police and Interior have issued multiple and overlapping statements about the incident. Initially, the police said they did not use tear gas on protesters. Then they retracted that statement. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told House Democrats “no tear gas was used” that day.

The Park Police, Interior Department and National Park Service did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Park Police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Delgado referred questions to the Interior Department and National Park Service about how many officers were involved on June 1 and the role the department’s SWAT team played. Footage from that day shows Park Police used irritants such as pepper balls, stinger balls and chemical gases against the public.

Warning

Monahan said Park Police cleared Lafayette Square Park after the U.S. Secret Service warned protesters to clear out and make way for the installation of a fence around the White House compound — an effort he said was separate from Trump’s photo opportunity roughly 30 minutes later.

“This operation to secure the area and install the fence — that had been discussed as early as two days prior — was completely irrespective of the President’s later movement from the White House and unbeknownst to U.S. Park Police,” Monahan said in the statement.

Park Police did not use tear gas but did use “smoke canisters, stinger balls, and pepper balls” after protestors grew “more combative,” he said.

In wrangling massive demonstrations in Washington against the Vietnam War, the Park Police used chemical gases, but the agency handled those incidents with relative ease, Deny Galvin, former deputy director of the National Park Service, said in an interview.

“One of the things they were really good at was crowd control, and they probably do it more than any other police unit in the United States,” Galvin said. “Twenty-four/seven, there’s something going on in D.C. on park land.”

That’s why Lafayette Square stands in stark relief, to Galvin. “This is not the way to do crowd control,” he said. “Lots of things about it, that just absolutely go against the book.”

In command

That the authorities broke up the protest in daylight rather than in the dead of night, when there would likely be small crowds, is curious, he said. And he has lingering questions about the role Attorney General William Barr had June 1: “So, my curiosity about the Lafayette Square incident is, what was the chain of command?”

“An operation like Lafayette Square would seldom even get up to the chief of the Park Police,” Galvin said. 

Barr has denied that he issued orders to Park Police during the events in question.

“With the president on the ground and the attorney general, in my experience, that’s all unprecedented,” Galvin said.

An order from Barr to departments outside his would not follow standard procedures.

Tucked in the sprawling Interior Department, which deals primarily with issues of public lands, national parks, federal waters, wildlife and scientific research, the Park Police stands apart from other DOI agencies. 

Parkway shooting

Like other police forces, the Park Police has resisted using body cameras, which made the investigation of the shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, a 25-year-old Virginia man, by two Park Police officers in 2017 in Northern Virginia, difficult to document.

Ghaisar drove away from a minor car collision in November that year. A pair of Park Police officers, Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard, drove after and shot him nine times. Dashcam footage that county officials released provided a break in the case.

Under the bill from Norton and Beyer, federal police officers across dozens of agencies would have to use body cameras. That bill was folded into House Democrats’ broader police reform legislation . 

There were at least five law enforcement groups involved in the Lafayette Square clearing: Arlington County police, D.C. National Guard, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Prisons and the Park Police, which ran a command center and led the charge to push back protesters.

Norton said a D.C. National Guard official present spoke with her and said the “peaceful crowd was too large for most” to hear warnings from officers to disperse.

Video

Beyer said the Park Police took the lead that day and were shown to be extremely aggressive. He cited a video compilation The Washington Post assembled. 

“If you look at the stuff that drives you crazy,” Beyer said of that video, “it’s the Park Police.” 

“It’s the Park Police shooting the rubber bullets. It’s the Park Police with the gas; it’s the Park Police that bashed that video unit,” he said, referring to an Australian news team hit in the chaos.

The Park Police said it reassigned two officers after they hit two Australian television reporters covering the protest.

Video shows one Park Police officer striking Amelia Brace with a shield and the other whipping a baton at photojournalist Tim Myers. 

The National Park Service, including the Park Police, had 2,304 law enforcement officers on staff, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report. 

Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said the Park Police has been adrift for years.

According to figures PEER tallied in 2017, the number of Park Police officers in the Washington region has dropped 15 percent since 2010 and was down to 406 in 2016 in the metropolitan area, as massive protests in response to the Trump presidency and record levels of visitors have stretched the force.

In 2015, Park Police responded to more than 25,000 incidents, including traffic collisions, search-and-rescue operations, robberies, drunk driving, assaults and poaching, said PEER, which obtained the figures after suing.

‘Chambers effect’

Ruch worked on the legal defense of retired Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, who was dismissed in 2003 after telling reporters the department was forced to scale back patrols so officers could guard national monuments and that the agency needed more officers to fulfill its mission, which expanded after the September 2001 attacks to include more national security work.

Chambers was reinstated to that post in 2011. Yet her dismissal cast a chilling pall on the department, Ruch said.

“One of the long-term effects was the ability of Park Police to candidly discuss things the way a police chief in any municipality would,” Ruch said. “They called it a ‘Chambers Effect,’ and it also extended to parks,” he said. “Superintendents were not allowed to talk about their staffing situation or certainly law enforcement matters.”

Chambers, retired since 2013, said how her former agency and others cleared out Lafayette Square Park June 1 was appropriate.

“This was the best tactical move available and one we often used for violent gatherings in the past,” she said by email. “Unfortunately, when the perimeter moves, there is no way to segregate peaceful protestors from vandals and arsonists, and everyone has to move back.”

If Barr ordered the Park Police, that would have been inappropriate, Chambers said. “A/G Barr is not in the chain of command of the USPP. He might have expressed an opinion, but it would have been inappropriate for him to try to direct the USPP,” she said in an email.

“I wasn’t there on June 1 or any other day or night recently, and none of us individually has the whole story — but I will defend the USPP’s decisions on establishing perimeters and moving them as needed,” Chambers said. “They are the best in the business when it comes to that, and I, now as an outsider, will not second guess them.”

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