- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The number of sworn officers in the U.S. Park Police has dropped to its lowest level in nearly 20 years, a watchdog group said yesterday.

There are 588 officers serving with the agency, according to a recent report prepared by Chief Dwight E. Pettiford and obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The agency has lost another officer since then, the group said.

That’s the lowest total since 1988, and more than 200 officers below the level of about 800 recommended by a study in 2001.

Park Police spokesman Sgt. Robert Lachance declined to confirm or deny the figures, saying he would not comment on staffing numbers.

The report comes a little more than a month after a survey of Park Police officers showed that 97 percent of those who responded lacked confidence in Chief Pettiford and 98 percent do not think the agency is as prepared as others to respond to a terrorist attack.

Staffing issues have long plagued the agency. Former Chief Teresa C. Chambers, who was fired after making public statements in December 2003 about the lack of employees and resources, told The Washington Times that she was “not surprised” to hear that the agency had reached a new low.

Park Police lack the visibility needed to get funding in Congress that other agencies, such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are able to get, she said.

“I believe one of the biggest problems the Park Police chief faces is that they have no real voice in Congress,” she said. “I think that’s my biggest frustration, that nobody was listening.

“But if something had happened to one of the monuments or memorials or there had been injury to a large number of visitors, certainly Congress would have a hearing at that time,” she said.

She said “a long history of insufficient staffing” contributed to the 2002 death of Officer Hakim Farthing, who was struck by a drunken driver while trying on foot to secure an accident scene on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Mrs. Chambers said Officer Farthing was killed because of an inadequate number of officers and police cars.

In July, officials with the Park Police, the country’s oldest uniformed federal police agency, said funding problems forced them to cancel several important programs, including cadet training classes.

Earlier this year, the chairman of the union that represents Park Police officers said the lack of funding had resulted in vehicles too broken and dangerous to drive. Though no officer had been hurt or killed as a result of the shortfalls, “it is just a matter of time” before such an incident occurs, said James Austin of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The agency provides foot, mounted, marine and air patrols to protect the Mall, Rock Creek and Anacostia parks, the Baltimore-Washington and George Washington Memorial parkways and dozens of parks in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Officers also provides escort to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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