Morale Takes a Dive on Bomb Squad

Gorbey Case Highlights Management Flaws in Elite Capitol Police Unit

Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:59pm

Five months ago, Michael Gorbey came to Capitol Hill with a tin can full of black powder and a determination to confront a government he thought was against him.

Instead, his arrest has highlighted the internal misgivings of one of the nation’s top-rated bomb squads and spurred many Capitol Police bomb technicians to look for jobs elsewhere.

It began Jan. 18, when one of the squad’s 14 bomb technicians failed to find Gorbey’s tin can bomb — a homemade device buried amid the trash and belongings of Gorbey’s green Chevy truck. The device had no fuse, but shotgun shells and pellets were haphazardly duct-tapped to the outside.

The squad didn’t find it until a second search three weeks later, resulting in widespread media criticism and the transfer of Sgt. Michael DeCarlo, who had been off duty but was called to the scene as the senior bomb technician.

None of DeCarlo’s superiors on the scene were similarly reprimanded, several sources said.

That was a breaking point for an already disillusioned squad, which prides itself on its top-notch members but has long feared the consequences of flawed management, according to several sources.

And the Gorbey incident, they say, was partly a result of that management structure, which sometimes puts inexperienced bomb technicians under supervisors with no bomb experience at all.

Now, at least six members of the 14-member squad are actively looking for jobs elsewhere and a few more have tentatively put out résumés, according to those sources.

“Basically the way they treated DeCarlo was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said a source who has knowledge of the bomb squad. “The department didn’t really back him up. Who wants to work in that type of environment?”

All are unlikely to get jobs at the same time, especially since federal and local budgets are tight throughout the nation. But they are part of a small group of sought-after experts.

There are only about 2,700 certified bomb technicians in the nation, according to Special Agent Ann Todd, an FBI spokeswoman.

If all were to leave the Capitol Police squad, that could mean more overtime, less training and a stretched-out squad, said a second source knowledgeable about the bomb squad.

That is partly because any bomb technician who leaves will be hard to replace.

Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the department has a “contingency plan” and stressed that the squad is at its “full authorized level.”

But she also conceded that vacancies would be filled with officers from a waiting list who had not even started the lengthy training process.

It can take more than a year for an officer to be certified as a bomb technician. The waiting list to get into the FBI Hazardous Devices School — the only school that certifies bomb technicians — is between a year and 14 months, Todd said.

And graduating the school is just the first step to becoming an effective bomb technician, several sources said.

“Experience is everything,” said Sgt. Frank Edwards, the supervisor of the Metropolitan Police Department’s bomb squad. “You can’t just go to training and become a bomb technician.”

The Capitol Police Hazardous Devices Unit gets more on-going training than most bomb squads. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency classifies it as a “Type 1” squad, the top rating. In comparison, MPD is a Type 2.

But several sources said the main issue at the Capitol Police bomb squad is management.

Bomb squad members can’t become bomb squad supervisors, meaning the supervisors come from outside the division and usually have no bomb experience. The squad’s current captain and lieutenant, who recently replaced two officer who transferred to another division, are just starting training. The highest-level supervisor of the division does have bomb experience, Schneider said.

“What we found is that movement throughout the agency creates a more well-rounded person and then creates a well-rounded team,” Schneider said.

But most of the squad is also made up of technicians with only three or four years experience, several sources said.

And if several bomb technicians leave for other jobs, their positions would be filled by officers with no bomb experience at all.

“These people don’t have experience. They can’t make these decisions. They can’t turn to their supervisor,” one source said. “Then who do you turn to?”

And the Capitol Police bomb squad has plenty to do.

The squad can get two or three calls a day about a suspicious package, on top of daily sweeps of some areas of the Capitol, said a second source knowledgeable about the squad.

Bomb technicians also have frequent training exercises, which enable them to “think outside the box” to diffuse various bombs in a variety of possible situations.

If there are fewer certified bomb technicians, then each will have to answer more calls during longer shifts — meaning less time for the training that has made the squad so well-respected.

And then there are the situations always in the back of a bomb technician’s mind: a terrorist attack on the Capitol, a truck outfitted with an improvised explosive device, a bomb in a backpack. Bomb technicians are trained to expect it all, and the Capitol Police has plans in place to handle such emergencies.

Those plans could be hindered by a depleted squad with less training, the second source said.

If an incident took the form of multiple attacks — such as bombs on both the Senate and House sides of the Capitol — then the bomb squad would have to split up. That’s harder with a smaller squad. The situation becomes even worse if a third of the squad’s members are new and haven’t gotten any training beyond the required six-week course.

Edwards of the MPD said the technicians on the squad are “on top of their game.” He has worked with them in various situations for the past three years, during events such as the State of the Union.

“I’m telling you with confidence, that’s a great bomb squad,” he said. “Their integrity is sound. Their skills are just as great as ours.”

But several sources said the unit still receives less funding and training than it should. After all, the squad protects the U.S. Capitol, which is widely assumed to be a top terrorist target.

For fiscal 2008, the squad received about an eighth of its budget request, said a third source with knowledge of the squad.

“We shouldn’t be one of the best,” he said. “We should be the best.”

Several sources said the real worry is that the bomb squad is on a downhill trend because of the low morale.

It will take thousands of dollars and years of training just for DeCarlo’s replacement to reach his level of expertise.

And DeCarlo wasn’t the technician who searched the truck and reported it safe. That technician still works on the squad.

“The United States Capitol, for God’s sake. You have heads of state coming from everywhere,” the first source said. “And this is the attention you give to the bomb squad?”