Police Chiefs Slip Out of Offices and Into Action

Posted October 27, 2010 at 4:19pm

Hollywood might depict police chiefs with their feet kicked up on desks, nursing cups of coffee and doughnuts, but it’s certainly not true in this town.

Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse, the head of more 2,000 officers and personnel, single-handedly subdued a suspected armed robber Tuesday. While making rounds in his police cruiser, he was alerted by radio to an attempted robbery in which the victim was held at knifepoint.

Morse, chief for three years and a Capitol Police officer since 1985, happened to be a few blocks from the crime scene near Union Station. He parked his car, noted a woman who fit the suspect’s description and approached her cautiously.

More than a half-dozen police officers in cars and on bikes arrived at the scene, and less than 20 minutes after the initial robbery was reported, the suspect was in custody and the weapon recovered.

Although that’s nothing new for Capitol Police officers, it’s not exactly a typical occurrence for a police chief, Morse admitted. But his position as head of the force that protects the Capitol Hill campus doesn’t make him any different from a sergeant, major or inspector in this kind of situation.

In fact, when duty calls, “rank doesn’t matter,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said.

“He is first a police officer and then a chief,” said Gainer, who served as Capitol Police chief from 2002 to 2006. “He captured an armed robber, and that is good work.”

As chief, Morse works as the administrative head of the organization. He attends meetings around the Hill and ensures “our officers have the best training, best equipment, best vehicles, best mountain bikes,” he said. He’s also the ex officio, or nonvoting member, of the Capitol Police Board.

Perks of the job include a spacious blue-carpeted office on the seventh floor of Capitol Police headquarters, which Morse decorated with pictures of himself shaking hands with President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama’s inauguration and his fellow police officers, some of whom were killed in the line of duty.

It’s not often that he finds himself on a chase or investigating a suspicious package, but the high-level position hasn’t slowed him either. As the father of three children, the chief is tall and fit, wears full uniform and carries his radio, handgun and handcuffs.

He devotes a few hours each day to making laps around the Capitol campus to check on policing efforts. On occasion, he resorts back to the duties that he learned years ago as an entry-level officer or sergeant on the Containment and Emergency Response Team. Sometimes that means assisting with traffic stops or helping out in minor or major accidents.

“When you’re out there, you’re in uniform,” Morse said. “People in need don’t care what rank you are or what police department you’re from. They just need help, and of course that’s what we do and why we chose this profession. As the chief of police, I am still a police officer.”

Gainer is also familiar with that way of thinking. “It’s kind of a daily event: Not necessarily making arrests, but … the troops want to see that you’re still a police officer,” Gainer said. “It’s leading from the front. Whether you’re chief of police, deputy police or inspector, you have to able to give direction or stand watch. It’s healthy.”

Gainer has also handled some emergency calls in his day. Once during his tenure as chief, he was cruising in his police car when he saw a car rocking and heard a woman screaming. He arrested a man, who was assaulting the woman.

He said the police skills that one learns as a young officer don’t go away: “They say it’s like a sixth sense, but you definitely get a nose for the street.”