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Tough Times for Capitol Police

Today's front-page Washington Post story on the U.S. Capitol Police recounts the department's recent move to dismiss 15 recruits after revelations that they had failed criminal background checks or other employment hurdles. The setback is only the latest in a series of growing pains for a force that, as the story points out, has expanded quickly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But while 9/11 certainly did help fuel the force's growth, an even bigger impetus came from another tragic event a few years earlier.

One month from today, Congress will mark the 10-year anniversary of the shooting deaths of two Capitol Police officers, John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut, by a deranged gunman, Russell Weston Jr., who burst through a door on the East Front of the Capitol and began firing. The event was a traumatic one for everyone in the Capitol Hill community, reminding members, staff and visitors that they shouldn't take the police for granted.

At the time of the shooting, the Capitol Police department had 1,295 personnel -- 1,075 sworn officers and 220 civilian employees -- and a $74 million annual budget. The 1998 shooting prompted immediate calls for reform and for more police, particularly to post more officers at doors like the one Weston entered, and Congress set about expanding the department. Today, the Capitol Police budget stands at just over $280 million, and the department has funding for nearly 1,700 officers and 400 civilian employees.

But a bigger force hasn't necessarily made things easier for the department. Rapidly adding officers can lead to recruiting problems like the ones revealed today. Roll Call (sub req'd) points out that "the removal of the recruits means the department will have fewer officers during one of its busiest periods," with national party conventions coming up this summer and the massive Capitol Visitor Center nearing completion. And The Hill reports today on questions about whether the department's bomb squad has adequate training and resources to deal with a potential crisis. "Nearly half the unit's 14 members are seeking jobs elsewhere," the newspaper reports.

Next year will bring a fresh round of headaches, as the Capitol Police department is scheduled to merge with the Library of Congress police force, a marriage that has long been planned but has spawned all manner of administrative headaches and tensions between the police unions and management.

As was the case back when Weston put the Capitol Police on the front page in 1998, most visitors to Congress now probably don't pay much attention to the cops standing guard at the doors, manning magnetometers and giving directions to lost tourists. For all the stumbles the department has had, it's unfortunate that the only times those officers do seem to get wide notice is when something goes wrong.

By Ben Pershing  |  June 24, 2008; 11:19 AM ET
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