By Eric Tucker
WASHINGTON — The chief of the United States Park Police, who was once fired for publicly complaining about lack of staffing and funding, said Thursday that she plans to retire next month after more than three decades in law enforcement.
Teresa Chambers said she plans to step aside Dec. 5, her 35th anniversary as a sworn police officer. In 2011, she was reinstated as chief after years earlier being fired for her comments.
She said in a statement that it was time to pursue new opportunities. No successor was immediately named.
"It was important that I leave on my terms and at a time of my choosing," Chambers said. In a separate interview, she said, "Now I get to start the happily-ever-after chapter of my life."
Chambers, a former Prince George's County police officer and former police chief in Durham, N.C., was tapped to run the Park Police in 2002, becoming the first woman to hold the position. Park Police officers are responsible for protecting some of America's most significant memorials and landmarks, including the National Mall in Washington, and also operate in New York and San Francisco.
She was stripped of her police powers more than a year after her hiring, and later officially dismissed, after complaining publicly to reporters that her department was understaffed and underfunded. She said the agency had been forced to cut back on patrols so officers could guard national monuments and that the department had a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall.
Chambers argued at the time that she was dismissed in retaliation for exposing staffing and security problems and claimed protection under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. The U.S. Interior Department said she was fired for insubordination and failing to follow the chain of command. After a lengthy legal fight, the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered Chambers reinstated in 2011 and directed the Interior Department to pay her back pay, interest and other benefits.
"The stand Chief Chambers took has helped others sound the alarm to better protect the public," Paula Dinerstein, the senior counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility who led Chambers' legal team, said in a statement.
The agency has about 600 police officers and, in recent years, was responsible for grappling with Occupy protesters who camped out for months on federal park land, preparing for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and responding to a mass shooting in September at the Washington Navy Yard. She spoke of pride in the department's handling of the Occupy demonstrations, saying a balance was struck between enforcing criminal laws and protecting First Amendment rights.
The police department was sharply criticized in a recent government watchdog report that accused it of failing to keep diligent track of its weapon supply. Chambers appeared before members of Congress several months ago to outline improvements being made.
Chambers said she thinks part of her legacy will be having built up the ranks of the department with qualified officers.
"I don't think as someone walks out of a position or political office that the impact of their administration is fully felt at that moment," she said. "I think it's over time, and I believe I've been successful in mentoring young leaders, in putting the right people in the right job."
She said she was looking forward to catching up on hobbies, decorating for Christmas and even writing a book she's been envisioning: about life "as a whistleblower."
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press