WASHINGTON – The first call came in to the U.S. Capitol early in the morning. A Capitol Police officer was too sick to work. Soon, another officer called with the same problem. Then another. And another. By the end of the Columbus Day weekend, more than 70 officers charged with protecting Congress had called in sick.
It was the largest number of Capitol Police officers who ever had “banged in.” Many of them say they really were sick – an illness brought on by fatigue. The constant and continual elevated terror alerts have meant weeks and weeks of 12-hour shifts, little vacation and fewer days off. When Congress stayed in session rather than adjourn for the holiday weekend, it was, for many, the last straw.
“The officers are extremely fatigued. They’re really stressed out,” said U.S. Capitol Police Officer Andy Maybo, chairman of the police union, which did not organize or support the action.
It’s not just the Capitol Police. All across the country, but especially in Washington and New York, police officers and federal agents say the heightened alert and the strain of long hours with no end in sight are taking their toll. Experts on policing, police chiefs and the officers themselves wonder whether the law enforcement agencies can sustain the current staffing levels without a general change in policy by government agencies that would provide some financial and manpower relief.
“It is a real challenge to balance legitimate security needs against the economics of what’s possible,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that helps large police departments. “They have to be more sensitive to the diminishing returns of keeping officers on extended overtime without resting them. Police chiefs are going to have to be more strategic.”
The chiefs also have to worry about how to pay their bills.
“We have been making the case to our congressional leaders that New York, along with Washington, deserves special attention when it comes to federal counter-terrorism funding,” New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday in a speech to Army War College students.
Nowhere do the effects of the heightened alerts seem more apparent than in Kelly’s city and the Washington area, where law enforcement agencies are spending millions of dollars in overtime and ramping up counter-terrorism efforts in the weeks before the election. The summer political conventions threat has turned into a general pre-election threat, which is morphing into a threat against January’s presidential inauguration, and police officials see no relief ahead.
Law enforcement officials and agency heads said they will do what they have to do to keep the country safe, even when it means canceling annual leave or extending officers’ shifts.
Gary Hankins, the president of a Washington consulting firm for police unions, said the result could be more fatigue.
“The human mind and body were not created to sustain a continuous heightened alert,” said Hankins, who headed the D.C. police union for 12 years. “You need to significantly expand the number of people you have performing the services.”
Inside the FBI’s Washington Field Office, agents who are already juggling day-to-day threats and intelligence tips have swung into high gear to plan for the extraordinarily tight security and massive manpower needed for the January inauguration – the first since the 2001 terror attacks.
“It’s rough,” said Paul Garten, a supervisory special agent of Washington’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which investigates all possible terrorist acts in the District of Columbia and Virginia.
Three years ago, members of the task force, composed of local and federal law enforcement agencies, had not even finished writing reports on the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon when anthrax was discovered on Capitol Hill. Ever since, they have run out every day to investigate thousands of reports of suspicious packages and powder.
“It seems like right now we’re in the middle of a long haul,” Garten said. “And it is unrelenting.”
On their 12-hour shifts, Capitol officers patrol the grounds, stop cars and trucks at roadblocks and use explosives-sniffing dogs to conduct hundreds of other inspections a day at congressional buildings.
U.S. Park Police officers, charged with protecting the nation’s monuments on and around the Mall, or what they call the icons, have also worked 12-hour days. Park Police Officer Jim Austen said the officers are starting to get some relief in their schedules but are “burned out.”
Along with issues of morale and effectiveness are the ballooning costs. In fiscal year 2001, New York City spent $200,000 on police overtime for anti-terrorism. According to the New York City Independent Budget Office, it costs $500,000 each week to maintain the terror alert.