After Six Departures, Bomb Squad Rebuilds

Posted June 22, 2009 at 6:54pm

Last year, the Capitol Police’s bomb squad missed a tin can of explosive powder in the cluttered back seat of a Chevy pickup parked a few blocks from the Capitol.

They found it three weeks later in a second search of Michael Gorbey’s truck on Feb. 8, 2008 — a discovery that was widely reported and resulted in the department’s decision to transfer Sgt. Michael DeCarlo off the squad.

Since then, at least six of the squad’s 14 bomb technicians have left, an apparent reaction to DeCarlo’s transfer and their disillusionment with what they saw as flawed management.

Of the six technicians, three went to the Pentagon, one to the FBI, one to the private sector and one to another Capitol Police division, according to several sources.

But Capitol Police officials say the squad is fully functioning, with all but two technicians finished with official training.

The Hazardous Devices Unit “is fully staffed, continuously training, fully equipped, and prepared to detect, deter and respond to routine and critical incidents,— Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse said in an e-mail. “HDS personnel have a combined 50+ years of bomb technician experience, and I have the utmost confidence in their capabilities and am very proud of them.—

But quickly restaffing a bomb squad is no easy task. Only one school — the FBI Hazardous Devices School — can certify bomb technicians, and its waiting list can be more than a year. Lateral hiring is also difficult; as of 2008, less than 3,000 bomb technicians were certified in the United States.

The six bomb technicians who left had more than 30 years in combined experience, according to several sources. Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider declined to say whether they were replaced with experienced bomb technicians, but she said two of the squad’s members aren’t yet certified — one will get certification on July 31 and the other on Aug. 31.

That hasn’t affected the squad’s response time or abilities, said Sgt. Frank Edwards, who often works with the Capitol Police as supervisor for the Metropolitan Police Department’s bomb squad.

The squad hasn’t asked for help, which he said indicates that it’s well-staffed.

“Any time you lose senior people, there’s an impact,— he said. “You just gotta step up to the plate and train, train, train.—

DeCarlo was the senior bomb technician on the scene, when another technician failed to find the homemade explosive in Gorbey’s pickup.

Gorbey had been arrested on Jan. 18, 2008, after walking near the Capitol with a loaded shotgun, sword, flak vest and dozens of rounds of bullets. Gorbey has since been sentenced to 22 years in jail, including 10 years for his homemade explosive device.

The belated discovery of the tin can bomb led to some media criticism, particularly because Gorbey’s truck was stored just a few blocks from the Capitol at the Government Printing Office. In response, department officials reassigned DeCarlo.

But at Gorbey’s trial, DeCarlo described a rushed crime scene where his superiors micromanaged and repeatedly asked why the search was taking so long. A bomb squad member searched the truck and declared it safe, causing DeCarlo and his supervisors to clear the scene.

DeCarlo was the only one transferred, while the technician who searched the truck is still on the squad.

In June 2008 — more than four months after the transfer — several sources with knowledge of the squad described a disillusioned team. “Basically the way they treated DeCarlo was the straw that broke the camel’s back,— one source said. “The department didn’t really back him up. Who wants to work in that type of environment?—

Edwards, the MPD bomb squad supervisor, agreed that DeCarlo shouldn’t have been transferred. “On the same token, no one is irreplaceable,— he said, adding that the Capitol Police squad is “top notch— and thus able to fill in the gap.

Morse expressed similar confidence in the squad, pointing to “ongoing and robust training.— He also gave several examples of successes by the squad, including a September incident at Second Street and Independence Avenue Southeast, where a man had an assault rifle, ammunition and a “hand grenade-style IED.—

The squad, he said, rendered the grenade safe.