Modernizing a Police Force

Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:44pm

Correction Appended

Ten years ago, it took 13 seconds for a 41-year-old paranoid schizophrenic to break through the Capitol’s security barrier and shoot an officer dead. He then killed a Capitol Police detective and wounded two others.

By the time Russell Weston Jr. collapsed onto the Capitol’s blood-stained floor, he had erased a long-standing sense of security — and jump-started a decade of fervid change within the Capitol Police department.

Today, much is different. Two officers stand at every entrance instead of one. Pop-up barriers block the entryways to the Capitol, while officers line the paths around the building. Screening equipment is more sophisticated and officers carry more-powerful weapons.

It’s difficult to determine the exact cause of those changes — to separate those initiated because of Weston’s rampage and those initiated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But in the 10 years since Weston killed Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson, the Capitol Police has undergone more change than in any other decade in a century.

The shooting, experts agree, was the beginning of the Capitol Police’s ascent to the full-blown police department it is today.

“The department could no longer see itself as [only] police security,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said. “So it made the department move very quickly from a relatively at-ease force — a little bit better than the patronage department it was — into a department capable of being a premier law enforcement agency. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”

At the time, Congress was already beginning to restructure the Capitol Police. When Republicans took over the majority in 1995, they abolished all remnants of the long-standing patronage system, where officers and police officials were hand-picked by Members. Talk was already focused on a more-secure campus, though few ideas had come to fruition.

Fencing the Capitol

One proposal that surfaced over the years was putting a fence around the entire Capitol and funneling all its visitors through one entrance, said former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who headed the House Administration Committee at the time.

“By the time of July 24, 1998, you had seen a series of escalating concerns, committee discussions and money spent on hardening the Capitol area so that you could control access,” he said. But “we didn’t really have the kinds of discussion of what would happen if they broke the perimeter.”

After the shooting, however, that became one of the main topics of discussion.

Members began to focus on a Capitol Visitor Center, an idea that had been floating around for a decade but had never gotten past the planning stages.

The hope was that the center would make the Capitol less porous by centralizing security far from the Capitol doors.

That vision will become reality on Dec. 2. Priced at about $150 million in 1998, the CVC ended up costing $621 million. It will have the latest in security technology and safety systems.

But during the years Members bickered over the center’s price and added to the plans, other big security changes were also afoot within the department.

House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood said the 1998 shootings immediately spurred talk of increasing the force’s manpower.

Chestnut was the only officer at the Capitol entrance door when Weston shot him in the back of the head, leaving no time for a response. If Gibson hadn’t run from his nearby post at the office of then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and wounded Weston, the shooter may have continued his rampage.

“I think the most glaring thing, without getting too far into the weeds, is that security was pretty thin,” said Robert Howe, who was the assistant Capitol Police chief at the time and is now a senior adviser to Livingood. “Once you got past the initial layer of the door, than you were into the Capitol.”

Now police officers are stationed throughout Congressional buildings, as well as in radiating circles beyond the Capitol, said Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse. Those extra numbers, he said, mean officers can detect potentially dangerous people before they even get to the Capitol.

He pointed to Michael Gorbey, who was stopped by officers in January while walking near the Capitol with a shotgun.

Furthermore, officers go through more-tailored training; soon, the department will open its Practical Application Center, where officers can practice responses in a set that re-creates areas in and around the Capitol.

“A lesson learned from a tragic event has resulted in many steps forward for our organization,” Morse said, “the physical security, the training and really the focus and mind-set of our officers.”

A Vastly Stronger Force

The department’s growth was constant because of several incidents that closely followed the Weston shooting, including 9/11 and anthrax-laced letters sent to Members. With each event, Congress was more willing to open its wallet, resulting in a rapid increase in the department’s manpower and budget.

The Capitol Police now includes about 1,600 officers, roughly 50 percent more than it had 10 years ago. With the opening of the CVC, it will grow even more.

Its budget is now $280 million — four times as much as its $70 million budget in 1998. And Morse is trying to persuade lawmakers to pony up an extra $70 million to update the department’s unreliable radio system.

That’s a long way from the department that Howe entered in 1971, when training consisted of reading a manual and taking a test.

“Over the years, it evolved frequently, and unfortunately, it’s been event-driven,” Howe said. “Those things tend to speed it up.”

Indeed, many of the force’s most significant changes have occurred after major incidents or attacks.

In 1971, the protest group Weather Underground detonated a bomb in the first-floor bathroom of the Capitol’s Senate wing. No one was injured, but soon after, officers began to receive better training.

When someone tried to get into Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) office with a knife in the late ’70s, the department began to do handbag searches. And in 1983, another bomb damaged the Republican Cloakroom, sparking the creation of Congressional identification badges.

But while those events were far apart, the last decade has seen a cluster of incidents.

The 1998 shooting was also the first time Capitol Police officers were killed by an intruder. And 9/11 changed the way every law enforcement agency in the nation viewed terrorism and security.

The deaths of Gibson and Chestnut, Howe said, “stay fresh in everyone’s mind.”

“I think the principal thing that the shootings changed was more in terms of the attitude of people,” he said. “It had been a significant number of years since an emergency incident, and complacency had set in.”

In the wake of the tragedies, Congress poured money into helping the Capitol Police improve its security.

When Gainer took over as Capitol Police chief in 2002, he focused on the operational side, ensuring that the department was prepared for any major attack.

Intelligence sharing with other federal law enforcement agencies and the Metropolitan Police Department improved significantly — liaison officers from the Secret Service, MPD and others are now stationed in the Capitol Police command center.

The outside view of the Capitol Police “changed pretty significantly,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who was the MPD police chief from 1998 until 2006.

Once viewed as more of a security force — albeit a well-trained one — it’s now seen as a “very well-trained force and a very capable force.”

Gainer “led a lot of change post-9/11,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that aims to help departments across the country improve. The Capitol Police is now viewed as one of the best anti-terrorism agencies in the nation, he said.

“The police department had to transform from just day security to a full-time police agency and full-time anti-terrorism agency,” he said. Now, “they are viewed in the law enforcement community as every bit as sophisticated as other agencies in the area.”

But soon after Gainer took over, the Government Accountability Office began criticizing the Capitol Police for its poor financial and administrative divisions, which lacked long-term hiring plans and policies. With the growth of manpower and increased independence, the department hadn’t kept up with the infrastructure to handle it all.

Gainer admits that he “clearly paid more attention to the operational end and not enough to the administrative side.”

“We’ve had plenty of GAO thrashings, and some days it was pretty frustrating,” he said. “During some of those days, I felt we were under attack or constant threat of attack, and other people wanted to know how many magic markers we had and how many uniform pants were hanging in there.”

Morse’s Reign

The focus has changed somewhat under Morse, who took over in 2006. To ensure that the force stays operationally strong, he has tackled the department’s administrative problems — and has also had to handle media and Congressional criticism.

About a month ago, the department asked 15 recruits to resign after discovering that the Human Resources Department hadn’t properly vetted them. In some cases, officers complain that supervisors have more managerial expertise than technical skills. And the police union recently considered holding a vote of no confidence in Morse.

Wexler said he was confident that any administrative problems will be fixed, and Morse compared the department’s troubles to those of such agencies as the Transportation Security Administration.

“These are not challenges that are uncommon to federal law enforcement and certainly not uncommon since 9/11,” he said, adding that he will continue to try to immediately fix any problems that come up. “I understand that there are bumps in the road and there are challenges, especially when you make change.”

But for all the department’s changes and improvements, many agreed that it’s hard to stop someone like Weston — a mentally unstable person who doesn’t care about injuring himself.

Police may be able to detect someone like Weston more quickly today, but in the end, “there are only so many things you can do about nuts,” said Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who heads the House Administration Subcommittee on Capitol Security.

“No one would think you can actually stop them,” he said. “You can just simply make the odds a little bit better.”

Correction: July 24, 2008

The article incorrectly stated that former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was House Majority Leader when the shootings in the Capitol occurred in 1998. He was Majority Whip at the time.