U.S. Park Police

The United States Park Police has a long history. Its origins may be traced nearly to the beginnings of the national capital in the 1790s.

   In 1791, development and construction of the government buildings in Washington, DC began. The Commissioners in charge of this may have hired watchmen to guard those building sites. Surely they employed watchmen for security at the completed buildings and their grounds after the government moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. These watchmen may be considered the functional ancestors of today's park police.

   Initially the city's police regulations did not cover federal property. In 1834, Congress provided "that the regulations of the city of Washington for the preservation of the public peace and order, be extended to all the public buildings and public grounds belonging to the United States within the city of Washington whenever the application of the same shall be requested by the commissioner of the public buildings." Records indicate that there were appropriations for watchmen at certain public buildings, including the White House and Capitol, but they contained no reference to watchmen in the parks or grounds.

   An 1850 appropriations act funded "two watchmen to be employed in preserving the public grounds about the Capitol," and successive appropriations through the 1850s provided for watchmen at the Capitol and White House grounds and laborers on the public grounds and in the President's garden. The Commissioner of Public Buildings had two day watchmen in the Capitol Square, two night watchmen at the White House, and a night watchman at the public stables on his rolls in the mid 1850s.

   The first official reference to watchmen elsewhere on the public grounds appears in 1866. A list was made of those engaged in protective duty in Washington. The list contained 30 Capitol police, 5 Capitol watchmen, 2 watchmen at the White House, and 2 watchmen in Reservation 2, the Smithsonian Grounds. The last two, in the area now better known as the Mall and Washington Monument grounds, were also listed as "laborers."

   The Washington protective force came under the administration of the military from 1867 to 1925. Appropriations for fiscal year 1875 covered four watchmen on the Smithsonian Grounds, one at Franklin Square, one at Lafayette Square, one at Lincoln Square, one at Washington Circle, and one at the circle at Massachusetts and Vermont avenues (later Thomas Circle).

   Badges, batons and police whistles, were issued after Congress, in an appropriations act approved June 15, 1880, directed that "each of the watchmen herein provided for shall have the same duties and powers of the Metropolitan police." George H. Brown, who then over saw the watchmen in his capacity as public gardener, dispensed these items and kept a whistle for himself. Maj. William G. Brock, superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, responded with a general order in support of the watchmen: "Their calls for assistance will be responded to as quickly as if the calls were given by a member of the regular force." Thomas P. Meagan, representing the D.C. Commissioners, made reference to the title "Park Police" for the first time.

   From that time on, the watchmen were regularly known as "Park Police," even though the designation did not become official for nearly 40 years. Congress made their authority permanent in an appropriations act for fiscal 1883, approved August 5, 1882: "hereafter all watchmen provided for by the United States Government for service in any of the public squares and reservations in the District of Columbia shall have and perform the same powers and duties of the Metropolitan police of said District".

   By 1900 the "Park Police" force was nearly twice its size in 1880, numbering 23 men. The force remained inadequate for the task at hand, however, and the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers pleaded for more:
   The one day watchman now allowed for the "White Lot" or President's Park [Ellipse] is quite unable to cope with the "scorching" bicyclers, fast [horse] drivers, and trespassers on the grass and shrubbery, and patrol 63 acres of ground. At night this large area with thickets and shrubs is absolutely defenseless, as there is no night watchman. After dark no decent woman, or couple of them, dare go through these grounds, and it has on several occasions proved dangerous for men.
   Common offenses at the turn of the century included drunk and disorderly behavior, fast driving (of horses and bicycles, automobiles still being rare), riding bicycles on walks, vagrancy, and indecent exposure.

   The year 1900 was notable for the watch force on at least two accounts. First, Congress responded to the Chief of Engineers by authorizing four more night watchman positions and a sergeant for the force. The other significant event of 1900 was the uniforming of the force. Modeled after the German foresters' dress, the uniform was dark green with a tan straw helmet for summer wear. The jacket was three quarter length with a half belt on the back panel and five brown buttons. Black braid stripes lined the outer seams of the trousers. The complete uniform, issued at midyear, cost each man $17.75 (with no allowance); the government furnished only the cap ornament, badge, and club. In 1903 the uniform was changed to dark blue with a gray felt helmet and brass buttons. The still unofficial "park police" designation received further sanction at this time: "U.S. Park Police" appeared on the helmet badge, the buttons had "U.S." in the center encircled by "Park" above and "Police" below, and there were "U.S.P.P." collar ornaments. The men still had to purchase the uniforms and the revolvers they now carried at their own expense; the government did not provide or bear the cost of these items until 1912.

   A 1902 report noted that the watch force, then consisting of a sergeant and 29 men, were "drilled in simple movements once a week, and [were] occasionally reviewed by the officer in charge." The Chief of Engineers' report for 1903 described the force as still undermanned. Many parks had only one watchman patrolling for only eight hours. The force needed to be enlarged further and to have its official designation changed to reflect its true nature and a recommendation was made that instead of watchmen this force be henceforth called park policemen in all appropriation bills and reports.

   In 1919 the force acquired a major new responsibility and finally achieved its long sought official designation. The new responsibility came that September when the administration of Rock Creek Park was transferred from its own board of control to Public Buildings and Grounds. The Metropolitan Police had patrolled Rock Creek Park, by far the largest park in Washington, since 1894; henceforth the park police would have this duty. Soon afterward, by an act of Congress approved December 5, 1919, the force was legally titled "United States Park Police."

   The enhanced status and responsibility were accompanied by greater strength and equipment. As of mid 1921 the force had a lieutenant, three sergeants, and 53 privates. Two of the sergeants and seven privates rode motorcycles; the lieutenant, the third sergeant, and 45 privates had bicycles; and the remaining private was horse mounted.

   In February 1925, Congress abolished the Public Buildings and Grounds office under the Army's Chief of Engineers and assigned its responsibilities to a new Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, an independent agency reporting directly to the President.

   In 1932, the Park Police received their greatest additional responsibility since Rock Creek Park and their first outside Washington. When the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway on the Virginia shore of the Potomac opened early in 1932 for the bicentennial of George Washington's birth, 12 Park Police officers were assigned to patrol it. This route from Arlington Memorial Bridge down to Mount Vernon was the first development of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, whose landscaped roadways would ultimately extend upriver to the Capital Beltway in Virginia and from Chain Bridge nearly to Great Falls in Maryland. As will be seen, the assumption of this and subsequent duties beyond the District of Columbia would help the Park Police fend off later threats to their independence.

   On June 10, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order abolishing the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital and assigning its functions to the National Park Service effective August 10. Washington's parks (previously under Interior from 1849 to 1867) and the U.S. Park Police were now assigned to an NPS office with the administrative designation of National Capital Parks.

   Much discussion and debate would occur in the Congress over whether the services of the Park Police were duplicative of those provided by the Metropolitan Police Department and other agencies. A bill would arise calling for the consolidation of police services in Washington, DC. NPS Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray was the principal witness against the 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.

   Faced with this opposition, the proposed bill was abandoned and a new bill to downgrade the authority of the Park Police was introduced. The "downgrade" bill passed, but President Harry S Truman, acting on recommendations from Interior and the Bureau of the Budget, vetoed the measure.

   The Congressional debate on the need for and usefulness of the Park Police would continue. It would culminate in a law passed on 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. In 1970, this authority was extended to Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford, and Charles counties. 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.

   Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall and Assistant Secretary John A. Carver, newly arrived with the Kennedy Administration, seemed determined to shake up the organization. Carver revealed plans to reshape the Park Police along park ranger lines. Their blue police uniforms would give way to green ranger uniforms, and they would devote at least as much attention to interpretation as to law enforcement and traffic control. The force would be headed by a ranger with a naturalist's background, and openings would be filled by people of similar experience.

   In furtherance of this, the current Park Police Chief Stewart was dismissed and sent on various detail assignments to Guam and other locations. Carver then appointed the National Park Service assistant superintendent of the National Capitol Parks to replace him. This interim chief was soon replaced by a deputy chief of the Park Police force who was veteran park ranger. He was assigned to act as chief pending Stewart's retirement and succeed him. Resistance to Carver's plan would cause some degree of dissent and morale issues within the Park Police force. Morale would only improve with the quiet shelving of the plan to "rangerize" the force. If any support for de-emphazing law enforcement in the Park Police remained, it was surely dispelled amid the violent demonstrations and increased lawlessness of the late 1960s and 1970s, when instead of policemen becoming more like rangers, rangers had to become more like policeman.

   Law enforcement was a major topic of discussion at the Park Service's budget hearings before its House appropriations subcommittee in April 1971. NPS Director George B. Hartzog, Jr., testified that the Service had considered forming a national park police organization but decided against doing so on the recommendation of the International Association of Police Chiefs. Instead, they had established in their Washington Office a Law Enforcement Division headed by a Park Police Inspector and were assigning a Park Police captain to each NPS regional office to coordinate law enforcement in the parks. Park Police officers were also detail to several parks that had been having major law enforcement problems over the last few years.

   The Park Police force expanded from 417 officers in 1971 to 570 officers in 1977, with a proportionate increase in support personnel. The heart of the force was the Operations Division that consisted of approximately 410 uniformed officers, 32 plainclothes officers, 54 guards, 18 civilians, and seven visitor and traffic aides. They were divided among five branches: Patrol, Criminal Investigations, Special Operations, the New York Field Office, and the San Francisco Field Office.

   Eventually even an Aviation Section was formed in April 1973. The section's most publicized mission came during a snowstorm on the afternoon of January 13, 1982, when Air Florida Flight 90 struck one of the 14th Street bridges after its takeoff from National Airport and plunged into the Potomac. At considerable personal risk, pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. Windsor hovered low over the river in Eagle One and pulled five survivors to safety. The pair received the Interior Department's Valor Award from Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt in a special ceremony soon afterward.

   In 1972 Congress gave the National Park Service two more major urban responsibilities: Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. In February 1974 they became what are still the only national park system units outside the Service's National Capital Region with permanent Park Police contingents.

   The force of the 70s and 80s was not only better educated and trained but more representative of the society it served. Blacks were a rarity in the Park Police in 1947 when Grant Wright came aboard. By 1949 12 of its 114 officers were black, but Wright and three black colleagues had to pursue a grievance to gain cruiser patrol assignments and be considered for promotion. A year later Wright became a motorcycle officer, and in 1954 he was made the first black corporal. Rising through the ranks to progressively more responsible positions, Wright became chief of the force in 1968. Other blacks followed to high rank, among them Parker T. Hill, who succeeded Jerry Wells as chief in 1979 and led the force until Lynn Herring took over in 1981.

   The U. S. Park Police have responsibilities for providing law enforcement services within the District of Columbia as well as other Federal reservations, in the Washington metropolitan area, New York and San Francisco, They are also frequently requested to provide protection for dignitaries, such as the President of the United States and visiting foreign heads of state, and assistance to other areas of the National Park Service and other law enforcement agencies during law enforcement emergencies. In addition, they have eight law enforcement advisors located throughout the mainland of the United States.

   Initial appointments are made to the Washington metropolitan area where the largest contingent of officers is located. Officers may be reassigned to the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City or to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the city of San Francisco, California. Officers may also be detailed to duty in any area of the National Park Service.

   Each Officer of the U. S. Park police is charged with the responsibility of providing law enforcement services which includes the investigation and detention of persons suspected of committing offenses against the United States. Additionally, law enforcement services are provided for the many notable civic events conducted within the National Park Service.

Much of this summary was extracted and abridged from The United States Park Police a History, by Barry Mackintosh, History Division, National Park Service, Department of the Interior Washington, D.C.