Washington, DC — The number of U.S. Park Police officers is the lowest it has been in twenty years, according to figures obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite adding a new class of recruits last month, the Park Police force of sworn officers fell to 576 at the end of January, its lowest level since 1987.
This critically low staffing is aggravating problems both within the force and for visitors and commuters in Park Police-patrolled parkways and parks. The oldest uniformed police force in federal service, the U.S. Park Police is responsible for protecting the National Mall, the Statute of Liberty, scores of parks in the District of Columbia, five major parkways and various other sites from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Wolf Trap Center for Performing Arts in Northern Virginia.
The first recruiting class since September 2006 added seven new officers to Park Police ranks, but this increment is not keeping up with attrition, as the total force level dropped by a net nine officers from just the end of December 2007. Since the end of January 2008, at least four more officers have left the force.
In 2004, Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers was terminated for drawing attention to understaffing, a problem that has only grown worse in her absence. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court upheld Chambers’ challenge to her removal but the case is not finally resolved and is subject to further litigation.
The current complement of 576 officers is nearly 50 below the 2001 force levels and even further below the peak of 638 officers in 1999. All of these numbers, however, are well short of the force level of 806 officers recommended by the National Park Service back in 2000 – before the Park Police was assigned new anti-terrorism duties in the wake of 9/11.
These chronic shortfalls are also reflected in —
- Record levels of assaults on Park Police officers who are often forced to respond to incidents without back-up;
- A blistering assessment of Park Police performance, particularly on the National Mall, released earlier this month by the Interior Department Office of Inspector General; and
- An overwhelmingly pessimistic survey of Park Police officers early last year complaining about the lack of funding, inadequate force levels and equipment. The survey also rendered a resounding vote of no confidence in current Park Police leadership.
“Congress needs to intervene now if the current decline in the U.S. Park Police is going to be reversed,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has represented Chief Chambers in her long legal fight. “We are well beyond the point where the Park Police can be expected to continue doing more with less.”