Longtime Officer Reflects on 20 Years Measuring the Pulse of the Capitol

Posted August 13, 2009 at 11:01pm

Rodrigo Jennings patrols the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building every day, a job he’s been doing in some form as a Capitol Police officer for the past 20 years.

“Where I work is considered the gateway to the Capitol,— says Jennings. In fact, in many ways, Jennings, 44, has his finger on the pulse of Russell in a way that almost no one else can claim.

Jennings serves to protect lawmakers, staffers and Capitol visitors. Jennings’ desk in the Russell basement sits right at the entrance to the subway to the Capitol.

Because Jennings’ usual post is so close to the Senate and House floors, he has to be aware not only of his security duties, but also of the Senators and sometimes Congressmen who might be in Russell so that he can help get them to floor votes.

“I pretty much know which [Members] are early for a vote and which ones cut it close,— Jennings said. It’s his duty to notify the Cloakroom when Members are running late to votes.

In order to recognize all of the 100 Senators and 435 Representatives, Jennings said officers must memorize Members’ pictures during officer training. But Jennings can do even more than that: He says he can often identify which Member is coming by recognizing the staffers.

He also uses a system of bells and hand signals (for the hand signals, think of coaches during a baseball game) to notify the subway train conductors that Senators are approaching.

“I let [them] know how many [Senators] are coming and which train I want them to get on,— Jennings said, noting that there are some Members who prefer to walk most of the time. “Every now and then you do ask them [if they] are going to ride the train [and] sometimes they’ll surprise you and say, Actually, yes.’—

Of course, Jennings doesn’t work just with legislators. He also takes very seriously his role of greeting tourists, visitors, and on occasion, celebrities. In regard to tourists, Jennings said he tries to make them feel at home and treats them as if they were one of his own family members taking a tour of the Capitol. “I always say to myself if this was my mom, my dad, my grandmother visiting the Capitol, how would I like them to be treated?— Jennings said.

Once in a while, Jennings has even met with a perplexed constituent or two.

“A lot of people think that the Capitol is the White House,— Jennings said. In fact, sometimes people are quite amazed and a bit disappointed when they find out the truth.

This year will mark Jennings’ 20th year wearing the honored badge of the Capitol Police.

He is considered a senior officer within the force, a title that is generally given to officers who have served for at least 15 years.

One recent highlight of Jennings’ 20-year career as an officer was President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January. Along with the large volume of people, Jennings said the excitement level and intensity of civic participation made the inauguration memorable.

“I’ve been here 20 years now, but that’s [a] time when you saw just so much participation,— Jennings said. “It was an incredible day for us [officers] and it was an incredible job— by Capitol Police.

A D.C. native, Jennings has always been surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Washington life and has tried to keep up with politics.

“Growing up in D.C., I think you’re just closer to the pulse of everything that’s going on,— Jennings noted. “I watch C-SPAN even when I’m not here. I think after you’ve worked here awhile and you’ve seen so many things, it kind of gets in your bloodstream.—

During his time with the Capitol Police, Jennings has worked night shifts, covered walking shifts around the grounds, and taught officer training courses in such topics as cultural diversity and sexual harassment.

Today, he works the 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift. Jennings says he likes these hours because he encounters very little traffic on his drive in from his home in McLean, Va., where he lives with his wife and son.

Parking is just one of the many perks of being a member of the Capitol Police force. Jennings has also become close to his fellow officers and says that the law enforcement bond is one of a tight-knit family.

No matter where Jennings goes, he said, he sees fellow officers and Hill staffers. Even in the middle of Times Square or in Las Vegas, Jennings can’t escape running into his friends and colleagues from the Hill.

“Once you’ve worked on the Hill, you see people all over,— Jennings said. “ I don’t think I’ve ever gone anywhere … traveled in the United States … that [I haven’t seen] someone.—

In five years, Jennings is set to retire, as most officers do, after serving what will be 25 years on the force. He will have served not just the Capitol Police, though, but also the Hill as a whole.

It is easy to see, just by standing with him a few moments at his post, that people on the Hill recognize Jennings and greet him just as they would an old friend.

“I enjoy what I do … I’m a people person,— Jennings said. “I think if you like what you do, then that’s half the battle.—