Protection of Federal Buildings Woefully Inadequate, says GAO

Posted February 8, 2008 at 1:17pm

Federal buildings across the country have serious security concerns that include severe staffing shortages and failing equipment, according to the Government Accountability Office.

A preliminary report found that 756 Federal Protective Service officers and inspectors oversee about 8,800 federal buildings across the country, creating a system where one official might be responsible for the security of dozens of facilities in several states.

“Due to staffing and operational issues, FPS is experiencing significant difficulties in fully meeting its facility protection mission,” said Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the GAO. “According to many FPS officials at regions we visited, these difficulties may expose federal facilities to a greater risk of crime or terrorist attack.”

The Washington, D.C., area isn’t immune to the systemic problem. In just 16 months, the area has had five regional directors, and FPS officers say the force is losing employees.

“There has been a significant reduction post-Sept. 11 of officers in the D.C. area,” said Darius Sultan, head regional shop steward for the capital area for the FPS union, the American Federation of Government Employees. Sultan has worked for FPS for 10 years.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) held a hearing on the issue Friday after the GAO took the unusual step of alerting lawmakers to the problems before actually publishing its report on the Federal Protective Service. Norton and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) asked the agency to investigate FPS a year ago, and the report is due at the end of May.

But the preliminary findings are already alarming. Funding shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars have forced the service to cut costs in training and overtime. Many FPS officers have stopped working on the weekends.

If one is needed on scene at a federal building after hours, he or she has to first get permission to work overtime before responding. And some live hours away.

To make up for the shortfall, FPS uses security guards from private companies. But these contract guards rarely patrol the buildings, Goldstein said.

“In every region, we are concerned of the limits of contract officers,” he said, adding that firms reportedly tell guards not to get involved in confrontations. “Firms to not want to be held liable.”

At the hearing, Goldstein rattled off examples. At one federal building, a contract guard watched someone steal a law enforcement trailer from a federal building’s parking lot, driving over the security gates to escape. The guard said nothing until officials inquired three or four days later about the missing trailer, which held about $500,000 worth of surveillance equipment. That guard is now working at another federal building.

In another case, contract guards literally stepped aside to let by a fugitive running from an FPS officer. And in still another, witnessed by Goldstein, a guard neglected to detain a person who tried to get into a federal building with a large knife.

Goldstein declined to say where these events occurred. But Eric Shulman, legislative representative of AFGE, said that there are similar situations in D.C.

The problem partly lies in funding shortfalls after FPS was moved from the General Services Administration to the Department of Homeland Security in 2004.

With that move, the agency left behind the $90 million to $140 million a year it was getting from a GSA revolving fund.

While income from the tenants of the buildings it protects has jumped significantly in recent years, FPS officers still work less and get less training than in the past.

Sultan said the D.C. area has its own training staff, which helps make up for the lack of agency-wide brush-up training that used to occur every year.

With the move, the agency also has switched its focus from officers to investigators, who do more paperwork and oversee security operations rather than actively patrol. This leaves buildings that are watched solely by contract guards, and some that aren’t watched at all. At a vacant building, GSA officials found the body of someone who had been dead for three months.

Such instances point to an unsuccessful policing system, Goldstein said, though he added that GAO would find out more for the final report in May.

“I think without significant change, they’re going to be in this situation,” Goldstein said. “They either raise fees to the point where tenants are going to balk, or find it somewhere else.”