A Mixed Report Card for Morse

Posted October 29, 2007 at 6:30pm

Take a walk through the Capitol late at night and you might just spot one of the most valued people on Capitol Hill — the guy in charge of keeping everybody safe.

“I sometimes go to the Rotunda of the Capitol building, late when nobody is around, and I look and see the history that we protect,” said Phillip Morse, chief of the Capitol Police. “That’s the best part of my job, is being able to feel that pride.”

It is officially one year today since Morse, a 20-plus-year veteran of the Capitol Police, took over as head of the department. In that time, he has managed to keep the Capitol safe from serious incident, begun making changes to better manage the department’s finances and helped move forward the merger of the Capitol Police and the Library of Congress force.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Prominent officers have said morale on the force has fallen under Morse, and there’s lingering concern about how exactly Capitol Police should patrol the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Some of the criticism has come from the Capitol Police Labor Committee. Under Morse, the department has become a “boys’ club,” where officers are left out of the loop and upper management is never held accountable, Matt Tighe, chairman of the union, said.

The result, he said, is a force full of officers who don’t know the extent of their authority.

“I’d say it’s been very disappointing from the officers’ point of view,” said Tighe, who heads a union of about 850 officers. “I’ve never seen morale so low on this force.”

Reports of low morale have lingered since Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer retired as Capitol Police chief in spring 2006.

Well-loved during his time as chief, officers still hold Gainer in high regard. For his part, Gainer is among Morse’s biggest fans.

“I think he’s doing a great job,” Gainer said Monday. “He was the right man at the right time for that job. He’s going to get that department going well into the 21st century.”

Morse declined to have an in-person interview, responding instead to e-mailed questions submitted by Roll Call.

In his e-mail, Morse said morale among officers is hard to measure, but he praised officers for their work on Capitol Hill.

“I hope the officers’ morale is gauged on a job well done,” Morse said. “So, when we go home safe at night, the Capitol buildings are secure, and events of the day were successful, we should feel a sense of pride that we did our best.”

Part of the officers’ complaints centers on their contact with Morse. Gainer kept in constant communication with officers, Tighe said, and allowed individuals to contact him directly with problems and questions.

But Morse has established a strict hierarchy where he is “up in his palace,” Tighe said, only communicating with the union through a delegated employee and rarely meeting with individual officers. Tighe said he has made repeated requests to meet with Morse since becoming the union’s chairman in early September, but so far, Morse has not agreed.

“The troops have no idea who he is. He’s basically a ghost to them,” Tighe said. “He never communicates directly with the officers.”

Morse said he is taking action to help shore up morale, most notably by instituting training and leadership initiatives he said will keep both officers and civilian employees well-focused.

“We need to be mindful of how our supervisors lead,” Morse said. “We have embraced new leadership training that is currently ongoing and focuses on people and how to motivate them and improve their performance at all levels in the department.”

Members who oversee the department also praised Morse, with House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) saying he “has done an exemplary job.” Ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) had similar praise, saying he has “full confidence that [Morse] and his team will continue to bring positive changes.”

Gainer particularly praised Morse for dealing with persistent protesters, such as those from the anti-war group CODEPINK, and officers also have kept the Capitol itself safe from harm, Gainer noted.

The department took a lot of heat in September 2006 when an armed man crashed a stolen sport utility vehicle through a barrier near the Capitol Visitor Center construction site, ran into the Capitol and led police on a wild foot-chase before being subdued by a civilian near the Flag Office.

Morse, who was not chief at the time, has prevented history from repeating itself, Gainer said.

“There’s been a half-dozen incidents where Phil’s officers have stopped people, and it gets little note,” Gainer said.

Brady agreed with Gainer, praising Morse for his efforts to make the Capitol more secure while keeping it open to the public. “I believe that we enjoy a greater degree of safety and security because of his presence,” Brady said.

Patrol Focus

Since the September 2006 incident, many have said the department has shifted its focus away from the neighborhood and toward the Capitol.

Morse reaffirmed that protecting the Capitol complex itself must be the top priority. But that doesn’t mean Capitol Police will give up neighborhood patrols, either.

“Officers do have the authority to take police action to protect life and property,” Morse said. “We also have a close working relationship with the Metropolitan Police and monitor their radio channels so that we can maintain situational awareness and respond to crimes in progress.”

Capitol Police jurisdictional boundaries are based on a 1992 statute that, in large part, allowed the department to cover an area immediately surrounding the Capitol complex. A law passed in 2001 allows the department to work cooperatively with the Metropolitan Police Department in certain situations.

“Our responsibility is to embrace the spirit and intent of that law,” Morse said. “Officers who engage in law enforcement beyond our boundaries are subject [to] civil liabilities just as they are in any jurisdiction. So, it is my responsibility to ensure that we stay within our areas of jurisdiction.”

But officers also patrol on the border of that jurisdictional square, and because of a lack of communication, officers are unsure of what authority they carry, Tighe said.

More officers have been disciplined during Morse’s tenure than in years past, he said, but at the same time, the department doesn’t make clear what officers can and can’t do. “Officers are so afraid of being disciplined, they’re second guessing themselves,” he said.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she plans on meeting with Capitol Police officials soon to discuss confusion over the department’s jurisdiction — something she said may need statutory clarification. Norton sponsored the 1992 bill that expanded officers’ authority to prevent “imminent loss of life or injury to person or property” in the entire D.C. area if the officer is on official duty.

“The Capitol Police don’t have discretion about where to operate. The boundaries are very specific,” she said, but added: “I do believe additional authority should be given.”

It’s a tricky situation, Gainer admitted.

“I always was a very strong supporter to taking the fight away from the Capitol as far as you can,” Gainer said. “I think that Phil and his support staff have continued that. … It’s actually a fine line, and I know that it is sometimes frustrating for the officers, and I think Phil recognizes that.”

Getting the House in Order

Morse, who was deputy Capitol Police chief under Gainer, noted his vision is that the department become a “premier organization requiring premier standards, business practices, and leadership and decision-making at all levels.”

Almost immediately after being sworn in, Morse began implementing changes recommended by the Government Accountability Office to improve the department’s financial management and accountability.

The department has completed an inventory of its capital assets and is working with the Office of the Inspector General and the GAO to have an audited set of financial statements, Morse said. Just a few weeks ago, more change came when Chief Administrative Officer Tony Stamilio and Maryjean Buhler, director of the Office of Financial Management, left to seek other opportunities.

Morse’s financial efforts earned praise from Members, who say the Capitol police force is “saving money and better aligning resources to effectively meet the range of threats facing the Congress,” according to Ehlers.

Morse also is focusing on building a new radio system, which will allow officers to communicate with other departments, he said. Some of the $35 million needed to build the new system was appropriated this year, and a slew of Members have said fully funding it remains a priority.

Meanwhile, Morse also has made completing the merger between his department and the Library of Congress police force a priority. Legislation has been brought forth in both chambers to move that process forward, although concern from LOC officers over seniority and retirement benefits remains.

Overseeing the Capitol Police is a complex mission, Morse admitted. One must balance the needs of 535 Members (Gainer described the job as “working for two city councils, at least”) while also making sure the right decisions are made to protect the Capitol.

But it is rewarding, Morse wrote in his e-mail.

“Both sworn and civilian personnel are dedicated to the protection of the Capitol complex, and take great pride in defending it,” Morse said. “It’s a dangerous job, but we answer the call of duty each day to put our lives on the line so that millions of people each year can visit their Members and be a part of democracy.”