The Park Police’s ‘Dilapidated’ D.C. Dispatch Office Puts Safety at Risk, an IG Says
Holes in the roof allowing water and bird droppings through and possible black mold are among the issues, as well as problems with staffing and training.
The poor condition of the U.S. Park Police’s dispatch center in Washington, D.C., and management issues such as understaffing result in “significant safety concerns,” a watchdog found recently.
The Interior Department inspector general office, led by Inspector General Mark Greenblatt, released a management advisory on Friday about the U.S. Park Police’s dispatch operations center in D.C., which operates 24 hours a day. The Park Police, a unit of the National Park Service, is in charge of law enforcement on NPS properties.
“Based on [Park Police] documents we reviewed and [Park Police] personnel we interviewed, as well as our own observations at the facility, we found that the condition of the dispatch center’s workspace and equipment undermines its ability to achieve its core public safety mission,” said the advisory.
Specifically, the workspace is “dilapidated” such that there are holes in the roof that have let water leak in and birds enter and leave droppings on office furniture and computers, the watchdog’s office found. There is a “black substance” throughout the space, which employees believe is black mold.
The center has old and defective technology equipment that does not have necessary safety features, the advisory continued. For example, the facility lacks caller ID with enhanced features and its recording equipment has not been set up to allow instant playbacks of public safety phone and radio communications, which the Interior Department’s policy requires, the IG stated.
A footnote in the advisory says, “We initiated our review of the [Park Police’s] radio recording system after we learned that the [Park Police] had not recorded its radio communications during the events that occurred in and around Lafayette Park on June 1, 2020.” That was when President Trump walked from the White House across the park to a church amid protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder while in police custody in Minneapolis, for Trump’s highly controversial photo opportunity holding a Bible. Tactics used by federal and state law enforcement to manage and move demonstrators came under intense scrutiny afterward.
Additionally, there are long-term deficiencies with staffing levels at the center, and a “complete absence of formal dispatch training for some dispatch personnel,” said the advisory.
“Dispatch personnel told us that at one time full staffing for the dispatch center was considered four dispatchers and one supervisor per shift, but, more recently, that has been reduced to three dispatchers and one supervisor per shift,” the advisory stated. “Dispatch personnel reported to us, however, that there have been sometimes as few as two people staffing the dispatch center. The [Park Police] has also extended the shifts dispatchers work to 12 hours or more and increased reliance on overtime and personnel from other [Park Police] units to fill in as dispatchers, some of whom are not trained dispatchers.” Emails from dispatch personnel to Park Police leadership that the IG’s office reviewed called the staffing situation a “crisis,” which could be a liability for the police force.
Finally, there is a lack of minimum standards and guidance for the dispatch center as the Interior Department requires, said the Interior IG.
The advisory noted that in December 2020, the IG referred a complaint it received about staffing, training and equipment issues at the dispatch center to the Park Police. The Park Police’s internal affairs unit conducted four interviews and then finished its investigation in March 2021, according to the IG office.
Internal affairs said in its final report that it didn’t find any violations of the park police’s policies and it wouldn’t be taking any further action. It also didn’t “discuss NPS or department policies or whether a lack of those policies contributed to the concerns raised in the complaint,” said the advisory. “Internal Affairs did find that the complaint raised ‘safety hazards,’ which it recommended referring to the [the Park Police’s] force safety officer, and listed recommendations provided by the dispatch personnel it interviewed.”
The Interior watchdog found that the internal affairs unit didn’t give the report to the Park Police leadership, the force’s safety officer or dispatch personnel, which the IG office was told was an “oversight.” The personnel from the dispatch center told the IG office that the safety concerns raised in the December 2020 complaint still persisted.
The Park Police also has dispatch centers in New York and San Francisco, but this review focused just on the one in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Dispatchers typically manage the Park Police’s radio communications with other federal, state and local agencies; deploy and track personnel and equipment; and monitor the emergency alarms across NPS’s properties in the area and coordinate the emergency law enforcement, fire and medical assistance needed, the IG explained.
While the dispatch center usually doesn’t receive direct emergency calls from the public, it receives them when transferred from other centers for emergencies in the Park Police’s jurisdiction. The jurisdiction encompasses a few hundred miles across D.C., Maryland and Virginia and includes parks, the National Mall and major roadways.
“As one officer told us, in many cases, [Park Police] dispatch center personnel are the ‘first first-responders’ to learn of an emergency and determine what resources are deployed to address it,” said the management advisory.
The watchdog issued the following recommendations: review workspace and equipment issues as identified in the advisory and devise a corrective action plan with a timeline to fix them; develop minimum staffing requirements to meet the department’s requirement that dispatch centers are “adequately staffed;” establish and carry out training and any certification needed to meet the department’s requirement that dispatchers are “trained professionals and certified as required by bureau policy;” and put in place any more written procedures as required by the policies in the Interior Department’s law enforcement manual and the corresponding handbook.
Charles Sams III, director of the National Park Service, agreed with the recommendations and outlined the steps the agency is taking to implement them.
“Our recommendations in this Management Advisory are intended to strengthen the Park Police’s ability to achieve its core public safety mission responsibilities,” Greenblatt said in a statement to Government Executive on Monday. “We are pleased that the Park Police concurred with our recommendations.”