Let Him Speak

Posted June 22, 2004 at 3:51pm

We’ve long believed that the Capitol complex, like any small city, needs a police chief who has substantial leeway to protect the citizenry, to enforce the law, and to communicate with the public with as little interference as possible from his bosses. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer and the current Capitol Police Board have come close to achieving that worthy arrangement, but now one of Gainer’s bosses wants to muzzle him.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, has written a report to accompany Congress’ fiscal 2005 spending bill. It expresses “concern” at Gainer’s “frequent and uncoordinated publicity appearances.” It adds, “In the future, public pronouncements by the Chief should be co-ordinated through the Capitol Police Board.”

Nonsense. After decades when Capitol Police chiefs were virtual ciphers — and now, when the heads of some Capitol agencies still are — it’s refreshing to have a chief who’s accessible, informative and candid about what’s happening and what he thinks. Fortunately, Kingston seems to be an exception among Gainer’s overseers, most of whom told Roll Call that they are pleased with the chief’s performance, including his public appearances.

Gainer’s most recent moment of truth occurred on June 9, when he quickly decided — after a huddle with members of the Police Board — to evacuate (or “dump”) all Congressional buildings in response to warnings that an unidentified aircraft had intruded into Washington’s protected airspace. The plane was identified within minutes as harmless, but in this realistic “fire drill,” the Capitol Police were given almost universally high marks for hustling out Members, staffers, tourists and visitors.

We’re not reflexively in favor of everything Gainer wants to do — we doubt that the Capitol Police need a horse-mounted unit, for instance — but we definitely don’t think, as Kingston does, that Gainer needs to be “reined in” when it comes to talking to the media. Nor does Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, a member of the Police Board, who said he considers the chief “a very professional law enforcement officer. He is doing exactly what a police chief should do.”

Pickle says Gainer is supposed to confer with the police board before holding press conferences “on matters of policy significance” — and he does so. Pickle added that Gainer “is used to being a spokesperson for his department. I think he is going it in a very measured and appropriate manner.” Susan Irby, a spokeswoman for Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), echoes Pickle. “Chief Gainer is the ultimate law enforcement professional,” she said. “It’s vital that he have the flexibility to communicate with the community as circumstances warrant.”

The Capitol Police Labor Committee chairman added that it’s a morale boost to have the chief speaking out on behalf of the department — and that visibly managing events like the June 9 incident may even add to Capitol security. Bottom line: Kingston should support Gainer’s public role, not get jealous about it.