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A HISTORY...............
by Barry Mackintosh


With the Metropolitan Police patrolling all of Washington and empowered to handle law enforcement in the parks, why have a separate police force just for the parks? Versions of this question have been asked repeatedly during this century, requiring the United States Park Police and its overseers to defend its existence on a regular basis. While the defense has usually been couched in terms of the need for a specialized force, the element of "turf" is usually discernable between the lines if not cited explicitly. By and large, those responsible for the parks of the nation's capital have not wanted their policing subject to those responsible for the rest of the city.

The existence of the Park Police was questioned at least as early as 1916, when Secretary of War Newton D. Baker asked Col. William W. Harts, the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds, why it would not be advisable to merge the force (then under his department) with the Metropolitan Police. "So long as the administration of the public parks remains under Federal control, it is believed it would be most undesirable to place the police control of such areas under the jurisdiction of the local government," Harts replied. "This would invariably lead to conflict of authority. . . ." He went on to argue that the Metropolitan Police were more concerned with major crime than with park protection and would foist superannuated policemen unfit for street duty on the parks if given responsibility for them. [1]

Some congressmen overseeing District affairs wondered about possible duplication of effort and excessive overhead in the maintenance of two police forces. Rep. Thomas L. Blanton of Texas, a member of the House Committee on the District of Columbia in the late 1920s, was among them. But Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III, director of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, allayed his concerns. "Colonel Grant has convinced me that the time has not yet arrived to take away our park police force," Blanton said in 1928. "I have been convinced by him that there is a real necessity here for a Government police force, separate and distinct from the control of the District Commissioners. . . . " [2]

In the first years of the Depression, efforts were made to pare down federal activities to achieve greater economy in government. Washington's Evening Star newspaper reported in September 1932 "a revival of the much-discussed program of merging the United States Park Police, that are now under the director of public buildings and public parks, with the Metropolitan force." [3] D.C. Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen pressed this plan a year later, but the new civilian chiefs of Washington's parks and park police proved just as resistant to the idea as their former military managers had been. National Park Service Director Arno B. Cammerer stressed the fundamentally different responsibilities of the two forces, and National Capital Parks Superintendent C. Marshall Finnan announced a program to heighten their differences: the Park Police would be given mimeographed information on Washington's points of interest and taught how to become more helpful to visitors. The not-so-hidden agenda here was to make them irreplaceable by Metropolitan Police officers. [4]

At hearings before a special House committee investigating crime in Washington in 1935, Metropolitan Police Capt. Edward J. Kelly declared that his force should absorb both the park and White House police forces to eliminate overlapping duties. (As National Capital Parks superintendent during the 1950s, Kelly would have a different perspective.) Testifying before the House subcommittee on District appropriations in 1937, NPS Director Cammerer again argued at length to keep the Park Police separate. [5]

Later in 1937, the Washington Post reported that a "recent brutal attack upon a young woman in Rock Creek Park" had prompted new demands for consolidation of Washington's two largest police forces. The Post editorialized in favor of the proposal:

The District can not hope to stamp out the atrocities of perverts in the parks until enforcement of law in those areas becomes the business of all Washington policemen instead of a small, segregated fraction of them.

Overlapping jurisdiction is never conducive to efficiency. Even under present conditions, policemen from the two forces have been known to stand and argue over their respective obligations to arrest a law violator crossing the street into one of Washington's numerous tiny parks. The only way to eliminate such conflicts is to make all policemen in the city answerable to one authority.

Congress would doubtless be glad to effect this needed reform if it were recommended by the heads of the two agencies. The Metropolitan police are eager for the change. Since the Park Police are now seeking aid from the Metropolitan force to track down perverts in Rock Creek, they virtually admit their own inadequacy. The urgent necessity of enhancing safety in the parks puts a large responsibility upon the Superintendent of National Capital Parks to sponsor this obviously desirable consolidation. [6]

A 1939 study on the National Capital Parks organization requested by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes concluded that the protection of park values and visitors was receiving less attention than park traffic. The report advocated divesting traffic duty on the parkways and through-park roads to the Metropolitan Police so that the Park Police could focus on park protection. [7] Secretary Ickes's reaction was not recorded but may be guessed from his habitual resistance to efforts to reduce his sphere of responsibility. Nothing came of the recommendation.

The issue of park safety again rose to a boil in late 1944, following the murder of Dorothy Berrum, a young government worker, at Hains Point. Citing the inadequacy of police protection in the parks Rep. F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana introduced legislation to abolish the U.S. Park Police and transfer its personnel to the Metropolitan Police. The Progressive Citizens' Association of Georgetown and the Federation of Citizens' Associations endorsed his bill, as did Rep. Joseph O'Hara of Minnesota. "I am frankly worried by the incongruous method of multiple police systems in this city, especially when I think of our growing crime rate," O'Hara said. [8]

The House District Committee held hearings on Hébert's bill (H.R. 480, 79th Congress) in March 1945. Secretary Ickes had come out against its enactment, and Hébert denounced him for working behind the scenes to postpone its consideration. District Commissioners John R. Young and Guy Mason testified in favor of centralized control over local police activities. But Edward J. Kelly, now superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, was less enthusiastic about acquiring new responsibilities at a time when his force was 369 men short of full strength. The Metropolitan Police were "not looking for more work" and the Park Police were efficient and cooperative, he said. Representative O'Hara was unpersuaded, believing that "while the two police chiefs may work well together now, we have no proof that the cooperation of future chiefs will always be so harmonious" [9]

NPS Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray was the principal witness against Hébert's bill. He supplemented his testimony with a written "Statement of Justification as to the Need of a Separate Protective Force for the National Capital Park System." The statement emphasized the national character of the system -- "no mere local municipal function" -- and the long history of its separate police force under congressional authority. The Park Police had been highly efficient and successful in curbing vandalism, rendering public assistance, and preventing major crimes; the low crime rate in the parks relative to the rest of Washington was cited as evidence. If the forces were merged, the type of officer needed for park work -- one good at public relations -- would seldom be developed. The statement named 18 other cities with separate park police forces to indicate how widely their purpose was recognized. Consolidation would not save money: the men transferred to the Metropolitan Police would receive the same pay; the same lodges and equipment would continue in use; and part of the force would have to remain to police the National Capital Park system holdings in Maryland and Virginia. [10]

Faced with this opposition, Hébert abandoned his bill but introduced a new one (H.R. 2856) in April. This bill would retain the Park Police but reduce its personnel in the District to the status of watchmen or guards. Their role in felony matters would be limited to that of assisting the Metropolitan Police; they would have primary responsibility only for minor traffic cases and other misdemeanors, plus crowd control. The Park Police would also be funded entirely from federal appropriations, a change from the longstanding arrangement then in effect whereby its personnel in the District (78 of 108 in 1945) were paid and equipped from District appropriations. [11]

Notwithstanding NPS and Interior resistance to this downgrading, both the House and Senate passed H.R. 2856. But President Harry S Truman, acting on recommendations from Interior and the Bureau of the Budget, vetoed the measure on July 6. His veto message stated that the bill would require the Park Police to serve two masters, the District Commissioners (over the Metropolitan Police) and the Secretary of the Interior, contrary to the Secretary's legal power of exclusive control over the National Capital Parks. He noted that the Metropolitan Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were already authorized to become involved with felony cases in the parks whenever their services were needed. He also noted that the fiscal 1946 appropriations act for Interior had already been enacted without provision for the men and equipment being funded through the District's budget; if the whole force were shifted to Interior's appropriation, there would be inadequate money to pay for its salaries and equipment. [12]

Having supported Hébert's bill, the Evening Star regretted Truman's veto. "As a practical matter, the burden of investigating felonies in the parks falls on the metropolitan police because the park police are not equipped for this type of work," it editorialized. "The bill would simply have conferred on the former the authority that should accompany responsibility." With respect to the budgetary issue, it discounted the likelihood that Congress would not make a supplementary appropriation to Interior for police salaries. But there was no attempt in Congress to override the veto. Hébert was out of town when it was delivered, and upon his return in September he pronounced the bill dead. [13]

Abolition of the Park Police continued to be discussed for several more years. Rep. J. Glenn Beall of Maryland introduced another bill to that effect in the next Congress in February 1947, and Rep. Walt Horan of Washington, chairman of the House subcommittee on District appropriations, spoke in favor of consolidating the forces at his hearings on the District's budget for fiscal 1948. [14] The rape and murder of 11-year-old Carol Bardwell in Rock Creek Park in July 1948 moved Rep. George M. Grant of Alabama to sponsor yet another consolidation bill. Declaring that "law enforcement should be under one command," Grant inserted a long Washington Times-Herald editorial titled "Our Deadly Parks" in the Congressional Record. After recounting several recent park assaults and murders, the newspaper offered its view of the situation and prescription for cure:

Our parks are the haunts of murderers and rapists, sex maniacs and perverts of all varieties, robbers and thieves. Our parks are far more dangerous than the city's streets.

The record being what it is you might think, therefore, that the most powerful and effective of all our police would be concentrated in them. The fact is exactly the opposite, thanks to Harold L. Ickes, ex-Secretary of the Interior.

The fact is that our 30,000 acres of parks in and around Washington are not protected at all by the Metropolitan Police. Our parks are not even in the District of Columbia, lawfully speaking. They are Federal territory claimed by the Department of the Interior, and their regulation and protection are the assignment of some 118 men called park police, who have no plainclothes detectives watching the park crowds. They have only about 50 men on foot to beat the bushes and only two men on horseback for the whole system, whose job is primarily to chase runaways on the bridle path. The others are on motorcycles or in autos mainly for traffic control.

Police cannot watch out for murderers in the shrubbery, when they are in cars hunting speeders . . . .

The solution is obvious. It is, of course, to put the 30,000 acres of Washington parks under the Metropolitan Police, send skilled detectives and foot patrolmen and most important of all, plenty of men on horseback with orders to go up all the little foot paths and back trails.

When this was last attempted, Ickes blocked it. He loved the pomp and circumstance of commanding a traffic force to chase down people driving faster than Ickes thought they should.

How much murder and rape do we have to take before common sense can override that old fool's vanity?

Washington's parks today are deadly. The metropolitan force, with special horseback squads, are the only police who can begin to make them safe. [15]

Grant's bill went nowhere. Instead, the authority of the Park Police was increased. On the principle that the best defense is a good offense, Arthur Demaray had argued for extending the force's role on federal lands outside Washington at the 1945 hearing on Representative Hébert's bill. Secretary of the Interior Julius A. Krug presented the case for legislation to this effect in 1947:

Under an interdepartmental agreement with the War Department, [the Park Police] regularly patrol the Suitland Parkway, which is under the jurisdiction of that Department, on a reimbursable basis. Several other agencies of the United States, including the Public Buildings Administration, the Public Roads Administration, and the Civil Aeronautics Administration, having jurisdiction over roads and other Federal reservations in the environs of the National Capital, have requested police supervision of their respective areas by the Park Police on a similar basis.

However, the authority of the United States Park Police to police such reservations adequately and to apprehend offenders on them is not as comprehensive as it should be. . . . [16]

Congress responded with Public Law 80-447 of March 17, 1948, which gave the Park Police general police authority on all lands over which the United States had exclusive or concurrent criminal jurisdiction in Montgomery, Prince George's, and Ann Arundel counties in Maryland and Arlington and Fairfax counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia. (They could not arrest military personnel on military reservations, however.) This authority was made applicable to all federal lands regardless of the degree of federal criminal jurisdiction and was extended to Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford, and Charles counties by Public Law 91-383 of August 18, 1970. [17] The expansion of the National Capital Park system outside Washington, beginning with the George Washington Memorial Parkway, laid the ground work for this extension of authority and proved vital in maintaining the Park Police's independence from the Metropolitan Police.

The Park Police also gained significantly in strength. In January 1949 Assistant Superintendent Frank T. Gartside of National Capital Parks, citing the Carol Bardwell murder, asked the House subcommittee on Interior appropriations for an additional $150,000 to hire 40 more men to increase patrolling in the parks. [18] Congress complied.

Talk of merging the Park Police into the Metropolitan Police or of having the latter assume park law enforcement duties waned after 1950. A 1952 District Government reorganization plan called for a merger, but the D.C. Commissioners dropped that part of their program after conferring with NPS and Budget Bureau officials. [19] As late as 1983 the question of contracting with the Metropolitan Police for park law enforcement was raised in a budget briefing document, only to be dismissed by time-honored arguments: the Park Police were used beyond the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police, and their expertise in park problems made them irreplaceable. The late Secretary Ickes was quoted in their defense: "The problem of policing the parks is so different from ordinary police work and the duties of park policemen are so specialized that it has never proven satisfactory to use city policemen for park duties." [20]



Last Modified: Fri, Dec 10 1999 07:08:48 am PDT

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