Morse: A Miscalculation of Manpower

Posted March 25, 2009 at 6:13pm

The Capitol Police assigned only 300 officers to handle the more than 200,000 people who had tickets to President Barack Obama’s inauguration, contributing to disoriented masses and clogged ticket lines.

The department’s remaining 1,300 officers had assignments in other areas of the inauguration, but Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse told Members on Wednesday that “more people would have been a positive thing— outside the inauguration security perimeter.

Officials miscalculated, Morse admitted, even turning down an offer from the National Guard to provide more manpower. But an unprecedented 1.8 million people came to Obama’s inauguration, quickly filling the Mall and overflowing into the area around the Capitol.

“In the end, the impact of the arrival and movement of those 2 million visitors served to strain even the best of our plans,— Morse said.

Wednesday’s hearing came just days after the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies released the executive summary of a report on why thousands of ticket holders never made it into the inauguration ceremony.

The Secret Service, Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies wrote the report, which gave more than a dozen recommendations and blamed problems on poor crowd management and communications.

Members of the Appropriations Subcommittees on the Legislative Branch and Homeland Security grilled Morse and Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan on why officials were seemingly unprepared to deal with record numbers of ticket holders.

Most of their questions focused on complaints from constituents, who described a chaotic scene of confused people and uncontrollable lines. Thousands never made it into the purple and blue ticketed sections — two coveted areas on the Capitol’s West Front.

At one point, a line for the purple section formed in the northbound lane of the Third Street tunnel, an area never meant to hold hundreds of pedestrians. The crowd waited fruitlessly for hours in what some described as an unsafe situation, and officers never directed them elsewhere.

On Wednesday, Morse said officers left what appeared to be a calm crowd in the tunnel to deal with more critical situations. Later, he said, Capitol Police officials opened extra entrances for purple and blue ticket holders, effectively dispersing the tunnel crowd.

Most Members were measured in their criticism, expressing concern that some constituents never saw the inauguration but commending Morse and Sullivan on the fact that there were no arrests or major medical emergencies.

But Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said he was “extremely disturbed— at what he witnessed on Jan. 20.

Not only have constituents told him about the chaotic ticket lines, he said, but his drive to the ceremony was marred by ill-informed officers and several delays.

“That was not confusion,— he said. “That was madcap chaos that I saw on the street.—

At one point, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) criticized the hearing’s witness list, insisting that officials from the Congressional inaugural committee and the Metropolitan Police Department should be present.

“Mr. Chairman, we can’t get to the bottom of this if we don’t have the parties here,— said Rogers, who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) agreed that another hearing was warranted, perhaps under the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services.

Dave Meyer and Marisa McNee, two Democratic consultants who started a Facebook group criticizing the handling of ticket lines, sat in the hearing room listening to Morse and Sullivan’s explanations for problems that they helped expose.

The two have looked through hundreds of photographs and videos of Inauguration Day — none of which showed a single yellow-clad officer helping direct the masses of people.

But both were receptive to Morse’s testimony, though they said they still had questions about why officers didn’t direct crowds out of the Third Street tunnel sooner.

Morse’s remarks were “much more informative than the executive summary,— McNee said during an early break in the hearing. “I actually started to feel a little bit better in hearing what he thought happened.—

Indeed, Morse went through a timeline of the day, explaining that crowds from the Mall ended up converging with lines of ticket holders, resulting in an escalating situation that officers had trouble controlling.

Capitol Police officials, he said, “had no benchmark or historical perspective— to predict the effects of such a large crowd.

Sullivan also told Members that since the tickets were printed in July, officials couldn’t change the 8 a.m. opening time for the gates.

They still ended up opening the gates at 7:30 a.m., but an earlier time would have given officers more time to funnel crowds into their designated areas.