Park Police Officers Worried That Chronic Understaffing Could Endanger The Public. Then The Capitol Riot Happened.
“People were screaming for help on the radio. It was pure chaos. It sounded like officers were constantly asking for help in certain areas and things were totally out of control,” one officer said.
A few hours before hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, a group of about 150 people breached a barrier around the base of the Washington Monument. Vastly outnumbered by the agitated throng, a clutch of US Park Police officers on the scene retreated into the visitor center at the towering obelisk’s base, locking the door behind them as the loud mob furiously beat on the plate glass windows.
Huddled inside with a man they had arrested, the dozen or so officers were eventually rescued by another group of Park Police who arrived on horseback and let them out a back door. Soon thereafter, as the unsettled cops were regrouping outside, an urgent call came in to send reinforcements to the Capitol building, where the crowd was building up with alarming speed and volatility.
The Park Police quickly complied, but officers on hand that day said the department was only able to send a small group to the Capitol — certainly not enough, they claim, to have made a measurable difference in the disastrous events that followed.
"We physically didn’t have the ability to put more officers on that detail,” said one veteran Park Police officer, who was among those who took cover within the Washington Monument. “That was all we had at that point.”
In the wake of the alarming assault on democracy carried out by scores of Trump supporters earlier this month, much public scrutiny has been directed at how well the US Capitol Police had prepared and whether the National Guard and Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department responded quickly enough when the protests erupted into an all-out assault on the nation’s most hallowed legislative body.
Far less attention, however, has been paid to the Park Police, one of the oldest uniformed law enforcement agencies in the US and among the most experienced with protests. Part of the Department of the Interior, the force is responsible for large swaths of Washington, DC, including the National Mall and the Ellipse. It polices upward of 600 First Amendment demonstrations permitted by the National Park Service every year. And, geographically, it’s perhaps the closest law enforcement agency to the Capitol other than the Capitol Police itself, with which it has worked closely over the decades.
But unlike its legislative counterpart, the Park Police suffers from chronic understaffing and deeply diminished resources, according to multiple Inspector General reviews, reporting by a watchdog group, and interviews with current and former officers. Since 2001, its ranks have shrunk by a third, to just 508 sworn officers currently nationwide, according to the National Park Service’s annual budget request documents. Its budget stands at $116 million and hasn’t grown in years, while the Capitol Police has seen its funding increase about a quarter, to $516 million, since 2017 alone.
The agency denied that staffing issues played any role in the Park Police’s ability to respond when the Capitol was overrun.
“In advance of the despicable acts that took place on January 6, the U.S. Park Police did bring in additional personnel. We were fully and appropriately staffed to carry out our responsibilities,” said Sgt. Roselyn Norment, a spokesperson for the department, adding that it “fulfilled all resource requests made by US Capitol Police.”
Officers with knowledge of Park Police's preparation said that around 200 personnel had been assigned to patrol the protests, including commanding officials, and that any available resources beyond that were anemic at best. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, current and former Park Police officers, leadership, and union officials said that rather than poor planning or bad intelligence, the department’s ability to adequately do its job has been hamstrung by chronic understaffing, inadequate training, and outdated equipment.
After a year in which more than 50 Park Police officers in DC were injured during protests, morale has plummeted, making matters worse. Veterans said numerous officers have resigned of late, forcing those remaining to work increasing amounts of overtime, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.
The result, those officers said, was that when things got troublingly out of hand on January 6, the Park Police struggled to deploy enough resources to help confront the unruly mob. And although it’s impossible to say whether a more robust response from the department could have averted a crisis that was already spiraling, the inability to do more remains, for many officers, a nagging wound.
“People were screaming for help on the radio. It was pure chaos,” said Michael Shalton, a veteran officer who is also vice president of the union for the Park Police. He was stationed in Virginia during the assault, listening to events transpire on the radio. “It sounded like officers were constantly asking for help in certain areas and things were totally out of control.”
Although the Park Police is tasked with safeguarding many of the nation’s most venerated sites, including the Statue of Liberty and San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the department’s main responsibility lies in the District of Columbia, where roughly 300 of its officers are stationed.
Because of its unique jurisdiction, the Park Police typically serves as the frontline law enforcement agency during protests and demonstrations in the National Mall and outside the White House.
As part of that job, the department works closely with a constellation of other law enforcement agencies within DC, in particular the Capitol Police. In 1998, for example, when a gunman burst into the Capitol and shot two officers, it was a Park Police helicopter that carried a wounded officer to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. And during the 2013 Navy Yard shooting, the Park Police helped bring in snipers and ferry civilians to safety.
But in a moment when activists have been calling for defunding of police departments, the Park Police budget — which is smaller than that of the Arlington, Texas, police department — has not measurably increased in real terms since at least 2001, federal records show. By comparison, Washington’s far larger Metropolitan Police Department has seen its funding increase by about 30% over the last two decades when adjusted for inflation.
Those budgetary and staffing issues date back years. A 2008 report by the Department of Interior, Office of Inspector General found that decreased staffing levels had hurt the department’s ability to police monuments and conduct normal patrol duties, and that both morale and confidence among officers were low. The report also found that officers did not always have adequate training and that at times officers had to use their own cars because of a shortage in patrol vehicles. That echoed similar findings by the Inspector General in 2002 and 2006.
Officers frequently complain of insufficient equipment, and their union has repeatedly petitioned for body cameras to no avail. But by far the biggest issue, insiders said, is staffing, which is so lean that officers are often obliged to drive squad cars alone because the department cannot afford to pull another person from the field. Those vehicles, meanwhile, lack onboard computers. According to Charles Pereira, a technology officer for the Park Police until 2016, the department didn’t even transition to computerized police reports until a few years before he retired.
“We didn’t have as much hardware as we would have liked to have,” he said.
Park Police also said they’re exhausted. Beset by COVID-19 and months of nearly continuous protests, 12-hour shifts, 75-hour weeks, and long stretches without days off have become routine, officers said. In late August, for example, 15 officers had their vacations canceled with almost no notice because they had to be on guard for fireworks at the Republican National Convention, according to documents and emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Even maintaining day-to-day operations has become impossible without officers working extra shifts, said Kenneth Spencer, chair of the department’s union, the US Park Police Fraternal Order of Police. Spencer, who does street patrol for the force, said that underfunding has been a bone of contention for years, and that within the $12 billion umbrella of the Interior Department budget, the Park Police had “fallen through the cracks.” In recent years, the union has hired a full-time lobbyist to push for more money, but its efforts have produced few, if any, results.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group, has chronicled the issues plaguing the Park Police and its parent agencies for years. In a 2017 report, PEER described how although the Park Service saw its budget grow, none of that increase trickled down to the Park Police. “In short, the Park Police is fighting for a piece of a limited pie,” the report stated.
Two former Park Police chiefs were fired during the administration of George W. Bush for talking to the press about staffing shortages. One, Teresa Chambers, told BuzzFeed News that the lack of money was due to the fact that while chief, she was not included in budget talks within the Interior Department, nor was she able to advocate for their budgets directly to Congress.
The Park Police, she said in 2017, is “buried deep, deep, deep within an environmental organization known as the Department of Interior. We were a little gnat on the side.”
In 2013, the Park Police had the dubious distinction of being the only federal law enforcement agency required to take unpaid furloughs during budget sequestration. “More money for the USPP means less for agencies such as the Bureau of Indian affairs, which means native children go hungry,” said Jonathan Jarvis, who headed the National Parks Service under president Barack Obama. “It's Sophie's choice.”
Early in Trump’s term, the department’s union pushed to get the Park Police removed from the Interior Department. That effort went nowhere, and though the Interior Department’s budget has increased every year since Trump took office, the Park Police have not seen similar bumps.
The department also has several significant blemishes on its record. It was heavily criticized for its aggressive handling of protests outside meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 2002, when it and DC’s Metropolitan Police were accused of surrounding and beating demonstrators prior to mass arrests, which ultimately led to a court settlement. Park Police officers also had lost track of hundreds of weapons after an anonymous tip reported that the agency was mishandling its firearms, according to a 2013 Inspector General report. In 2017, two officers shot and killed an unarmed motorist named Bijan Ghaisar, whose family is still demanding justice.
And last June, the Park Police was lambasted for its use of force and chemical irritants on peaceful protesters to clear DC’s Lafayette Square — which is in the department’s jurisdiction — where Trump wanted to take a photo-op in front of a church.
But in a letter to Congress the following month, the union appeared to place blame on those who control the department’s purse strings, demanding more training, increased staffing levels, and body cameras.
“The USPP is dangerously understaffed, creating a dire situation for the safety of the public and officers alike,” the letter read. “Overworked, over-stressed, and overwhelmed police officers are being asked to make sound, on-the-spot decisions when they lack the work-rest cycle the body and mind needs. We also lack the staffing to implement crowd control tactics effectively.”
According to the Park Police’s current acting chief, Greg Monahan, over a four-day period between May 29 and June 1, 50 of his officers were hurt during Black Lives Matter protests, sustaining injuries from bricks, fireworks, and chunks of wood. That only put further stresses on an exhausted force, officers said.
Department insiders said that the years of neglect came to a head on Jan. 6.
Numerous permits were issued in advance for pro-Trump groups to hold free speech rallies in Washington on Jan. 6, including the main one from Women for America First. That permit was originally approved by the National Park Service for 5,000 people but amended to 30,000 just a day ahead of time.
For more than a week leading up to the event, a joint coalition of federal law enforcement agencies, including the Park Police and the Capitol Police, met each afternoon to coordinate staffing, resources, and a response plan. They shared intelligence that shaped their preparation plans, sources said, and the Park Police called in officers from New York, as it usually does for large rallies.
Park Police officials were in constant communication with the Capitol Police before and on the day of the assault, officers and others with knowledge of the inner workings of the joint chain of command said, adding that the coalition had intelligence that the crowds would head toward the Capitol. In response, Park Police pre-stationed members of its SWAT team near the Capitol, as well as at the Ellipse, just south of the White House.
Even before Trump began a fiery late-morning speech that urged his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol,” tensions were rising on the National Mall, where tens of thousands of demonstrators unhappy with the outcome of the presidential election had already gathered.
At around 10 a.m., an officer recorded several angry white protesters holding “Stop the Steal” signs, yelling and banging against the thick glass of the office in the Washington Monument where Park Police officers had fled moments earlier, according to videos of the previously unreported incident reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
“I never saw this before in my 11 years on the job,” one of the officers who was locked inside the visitor center recalled. “We had to make a decision to get our butts out of there before the crowd got bigger.”
By the time the small group of police emerged, unscathed, much of the crowd had moved on — responding, perhaps, to Trump’s message. “The pulse of the crowd changed,” a senior official said. Inside the command center, meanwhile, Park Police leadership “were all talking and devising a plan of action and deployment of resources the best we could.”
At around 11:30 a.m., a Park Police SWAT officer, wearing a helmet and gas mask, recalled being ordered to head on foot from the Ellipse to the Capitol, about a mile and a half away. When he arrived, he said the hectic scene was already turning violent and law enforcement was being overpowered. Many of the Capitol Police had already fallen back into the building and a contingent of Metropolitan Police Department officers on the scene were deploying tear gas.
But the cluster of Park Police officers who reached the Capitol seemed insignificant compared to the sprawling mob. After arriving, the SWAT officer remembers counting the colleagues he could see and tallying about 20. Many positioned themselves on the building’s west side, where much of the violence was unfolding, using pepper balls to try to hold back the surging crowd.
“The protesters were hitting hard,” the SWAT officer recalled. “We were vastly outnumbered and several officers were injured.”
It took about three hours to get the situation under control and remove the rioters from the Capitol grounds, but to the officer it felt far longer. Afterward, he said, he returned to his own jurisdiction and stayed on patrol until late that night.
As a longtime Park Police major, Charles McLane policed some of the biggest demonstrations in US history, including the civil rights and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. Long retired, he watched the events of Jan. 6 from home with a mixture of horror and dismay, but also an unmistakable note of familiarity.
The department, he said, had never gotten the funding and manpower it had needed, and the chaos around the Capitol was a fresh reminder of its second-tier status. With a force numbering barely one-seventh that of the generously funded Capitol Police, which patrols a far smaller area, it’s likely that even a total commitment of the 300 Park Police officers in DC would have done little to change the day’s outcome.
Still, said McLane, he can’t help but wish the department were better prepared to try.
“I may as well just look up in the clouds and say ‘Jesus, can you give these guys 300 officers next year?’ It’s not going to happen.”
Correction: The Park Police in San Francisco patrol the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A previous version of this post misstated the location.