John McArdle, ROLL CALL STAFF
Copyright 2006 Roll Call, Inc.
As an internal investigation conducted by the acting chief of the Capitol Police found that two police management officials improperly handled the department's investigation into a car crash involving Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) last Thursday, national Fraternal Order of Police called the incident a symptom of a broader problem of "political policing" being encouraged by agency brass.
"First, we had [Rep. Cynthia] McKinney (D-Ga.) attack a police officer, and now we allegedly have Rep. Kennedy narrowly miss striking a police cruiser before crashing into a security barrier," Chuck Canterbury, president of the National FOP, said in a release Friday evening. "In both cases, Capitol Police management favored politics over protocol."
Union officials are particularly upset that the officer who responded to Kennedy's accident was not allowed to complete his investigation at the scene but was instead ordered to leave the scene while Kennedy was given a ride home by department officials. While Kennedy blamed his accident on the interaction between two medications he had been prescribed, the traffic report filed from the incident listed alcohol as a factor in the crash.
"Whether [Kennedy] was driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol or both, we'll never know, because with the assistance of Capitol Police management he left the scene," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National FOP.
Pasco said that according to officers he has talked to, this is not the first time that department officials have stepped in when officers have responded to incidents involving Members or high-level staffers. In addition to the incidents involving Kennedy and McKinney, Capitol Police were taken to task in January when the wife of Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) was removed from the State of the Union speech for wearing a "Support the Troops" T-shirt.
Officers "have complained that they are being second guessed and managed politically rather than as a law enforcement agency," Pasco said. "And this creates an uncertainty in their mind as to how their management is going to react to a situation they find themselves in. Officers need to react intuitively and according to their training and follow through, and if they don't, it's going to put them and people around them in danger."
Acting Capitol Police Chief Christopher McGaffin said in an interview Friday that he personally conducted an investigation into police handling of Kennedy's early morning crash on Capitol Hill and found that the incident was improperly delayed due to "poor judgment" on the part of the police managers on duty that night.
"Significant administrative and personnel corrective action has been taken in response to the mangers' decision making," McGaffin said.
McGaffin's swift-moving internal investigation - which came on the heels of police union officials' complaints that officers on the scene were ordered to give Kennedy preferential treatment after the Thursday-morning accident - found that "some of the decision making and judgment were inconsistent" with USCP procedures.
McGaffin said he disagreed with on-duty police officials' decision "not to follow the good order and the normal procedures that would have been employed under this circumstance, which would have included administering a field sobriety test" to Kennedy. According to the the official traffic report from the incident, Kennedy was observed to have "slightly slurred" speech, red and watery eyes and unsure balance.
The acting chief has also held two meetings with senior police managers to "make sure everyone understands the appropriate policies and procedures on these kinds of matters and most importantly our need for impartially and fairness in enforcing the law on Capitol Hill. ... I expect my managers and supervisors to support our officers on the street and make sure they don't have any concerns about working in a political environment so that their focus is clear and unimpeded in the decisions they make."
But Pasco said that the Kennedy crash and its handling by the department is "a symptom of a much bigger problem, and it needs to be addressed. The management needs to have a hard look taken at them. ... I think generally speaking, incidents like this one are sometimes triggering events for a broader review of the way in which business is done. It may well be that as a result of this unfortunate incident the Capitol Police command structure will find a more professional way to deal with these types of situations."
However, recently retired Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said he had a different view.
"In this case someone used poor judgement, but I really don't think we can judge Congressman Kennedy, or the whole of the House, or the Capitol Police Department, over one incident," Gainer said. "When you're taking enforcement action against any elected official, it gets ticklish. But what I think that we've instilled in the men and women of the Capitol Police is to take their role and responsibilities very seriously. They are not just door guards - they are counterterrorism experts and they are true law enforcement officers. They want to do their job and also exercise discretion, but not do it because someone is ordering them or because of political reasons."
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle - a member of the Capitol Police Board, which oversees the department - said that he "never heard of anyone getting special dispensation since I've been here. ... I've never heard of that, but if it were to happen I'm sure that we would all frown upon it."
He added, "Our goal is to have our officers enforce the law and be fair and impartial and provide good security up here, as well as enforce the rules and regulations and laws. And anything that would make them feel uncomfortable or as they couldn't do their job we would want to address that right away and I am very confident that the acting chief is going to do that."
May 8, 2006
'Political policing' irks D.C. cops