Park Service defends handling of tractor standoff on Mall

The Park Service resolved the Washington tractor standoff that held up traffic and interrupted work at federal agencies for two days last month as quickly as possible, an agency official told lawmakers Thursday.

A number of government agencies and private companies cooperated with the U.S. Park Police, part of the Park Service, to end the standoff without the loss of property or life, Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers said at a House Government Reform Committee hearing on the Washington metropolitan area's emergency preparedness efforts.

On March 17, Dwight Watson, a disgruntled North Carolina tobacco farmer drove a tractor emblazoned with slogans supporting veterans and the military into a pond in Constitution Gardens, just east of the Vietnam Memorial and between the Reflecting Pool and Constitution Avenue in Washington. Law enforcement officers closed off roads and buildings near the pool because they believed Watson might have explosives.

The National Academy of Sciences, Federal Reserve Board and Interior Department are located in that area.

The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms played a key role resolving the incident by assessing the potential threat Watson posed, Chambers said. In addition, the Park Service received reinforcements from the Secret Service, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, Federal Protective Service and Capitol Police. The National Guard and a private film company provided lighting so officers could keep an eye on Watson at night, Chambers said. The Park Service was also in close communication with the Homeland Security Department throughout the entire incident, according to Chambers.

Watson surrendered peacefully after two days, but in the meantime, he caused massive traffic jams and some federal agencies near the pool closed their doors to all but essential employees. These inconveniences prompted lawmakers at the hearing to ask why the Park Service, responsible for guarding the National Mall, was not able to deal with Watson more expeditiously.

"If local and federal law enforcement officials are not able to handle congestion problems created by one man, how will they handle an evacuation necessitated by a terrorist attack?" Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee chairman, asked. "When protestors, packages or acts of nature cause regional officials to close roads, the effects extend far beyond a mild inconvenience to commuters."

Chambers and D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who also testified at the hearing, both explained that they considered using tear gas or other methods of immobilizing Watson to remove him from the pool, but were worried that he would trigger an explosion. The Park Service decided that their safest option was to negotiate with Watson for as long as possible, according to Chambers.

"We were never at a standstill [in negotiating]," Chambers said. "Never did I give up hope that we weren't moving closer and closer."

Ramsey called the decision to close Constitution Avenue during the tractor incident "inconvenient," but "prudent given the unique circumstances confronting the Park Police." He added that the police would have reopened major roads had a terrorist attack occurred in the midst of the standoff.

"Many people have pointed to [the tractor] incident and questioned whether the District is prepared to handle a terrorist attack or other large-scale emergency," Ramsey said. "This type of comparison is unfair and not all that instructive as we move forward."

Davis asked whether officials had considered the burden two days of traffic jams placed on commuters and ambulances that had trouble reaching hospitals. He said he wondered how long they would have let the standoff ensue before taking a more drastic action to remove Watson from the pool.

"Well sir, I'm at a loss here because I don't believe in killing people to move traffic," Ramsey responded.

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