Interior IG finds Anacostia Park Police office in severe disrepair

Imagine a federal office with holes in the roof, birds flying in, mold everywhere and a staff untrained for its crucial public safety mission. Hard to believe?

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Imagine a federal office with holes in the roof, birds flying in, mold everywhere and a staff untrained for its crucial public safety mission. Hard to believe? Yet that’s what the Interior Department’s office of inspector general found at the U.S. Park Police dispatch center for the Washington, D.C. area. Joining the Federal Drive in studio with details, Interior IG Mark Lee Greenblatt.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Greenblatt, good to have you in.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

Tom Temin: So how did this come to light in the first place? Was it someone calling up and saying, oh, my God, you got to check out this office?

Mark Lee Greenblatt: No, this arose in the context of our review of the Park Police’s clearing of Lafayette [Square] Park in the fallout of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota. And in the context of that investigation, that review, we found that the Park Police wasn’t recording its communications as it should have been. And so we’ve started pulling the thread on that. And that led us down the line to some additional problems with respect to the radio communications. And that in turn led us to this dispatch center where we started pulling threads yet again, and found some significant problems. There were some whistleblowers there that identified some concerns to us. And then we started, as I said, pulling the threads and identifying some serious problems with respect to the dispatch center. So this all was a fallout from the Lafayette Park review, a year or so ago.

Tom Temin: Wow, one thing leading to another. So you found both physical plant problems, and also operational problems. Let’s talk about the building itself, because it’s just hard to believe that a federal facility would be like this.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Absolutely. This is one thing I would recommend for all of your listeners, is to go to the report and actually look at the pictures. You know, you describe some of the things that we found in your opening. We found that there were holes in the roof there and a flock of birds had infested in their space, and their bird droppings literally all over desks and computers and things along those lines. Just imagine that, picture that in your mind. We have a picture of it in our report, I’d invite your readers to go check it out.

There were also significant problems with their spectral wiring, there’s a picture there of wiring, that it’s just begging for a fire hazard. And there were a number of other problems, water, black mold was suspected to be growing in the ceiling, in the walls and everything. I mean, it’s just something that, you know, I think your listeners will appreciate, this is not a good environment for, especially for federal employees. This is not the space they should be going into.

Tom Temin: And where is this building and what is its main function in the District, in the region?

Mark Lee Greenblatt: So it’s in the Anacostia area. And it is a dispatch center. So this gets 911 calls. They don’t receive a lot of direct 911 calls. But they do get 911 calls from other jurisdictions about matters that are happening on National Park Service land that’s covered by the Park Police. So they receive these 911 calls in this dispatch center and deal with them. It also is a hub for communications with respect to Park Police officers all throughout the Washington, D.C. area. So this is a really critical center. And what they’re doing is dealing with emergency situations, potentially life threatening situations. And we’ve got to make sure that not only are the facilities in good shape, but also that they’re operationally that they can do what they need to do. We uncovered a number of additional problems with respect to that piece of the story as well.

Tom Temin: Yeah, what were some of those, for example, I saw in the report, in one case, when an officer pushes the emergency button in the dispatch center, they couldn’t tell who is pushing the button.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: That’s right. So they would have to go through a roll call of all the officers on shift at that time and say, was it you? Was it you? Was it you? In another way they had a spreadsheet that was located in a different locked room from where the dispatch center folks were that they could match up some of the codes and determine who was signaling? Well, this is potentially emergency situations we don’t have time to go through a roll call of all the officers. I mean, who knows, I mean, this could involve public safety, someone could be having a heart attack, or there could be a shooting, there could be a Park Police involved shooting and one of the officers sounds the alarm on their radio, but they have no way of knowing who it was or where they are. So this is a significant operational problem that we found beyond the flock of birds. And beyond the black mold that was suspected to be growing in the walls.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mark Lee Greenblatt, he’s inspector general of the Interior Department. And also this dispatch center and the officers interact with other jurisdictions in those counties. There’s D.C., Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, maybe others. So it must be kind of a bad mismatch between what might be up to date police operations, say like Montgomery County, and then calling into the Park Police and finding this crazy, medieval type of setup.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Well, it was certainly not up to standards, and that was something that we identified was that their standards, you know, weren’t very tight, frankly. But we said whatever those standards were, they were not very defined, but whatever they would be, these didn’t meet them. And so that I think would be problematic if they’re trying to engage with their counterparts, as you said throughout the DMV, because their properties extend all over the place. Everything from the National Mall, to GW Parkway, you know, it’s everything in between. So yes, absolutely. They’re interacting with other folks who might have very updated different type of operational capacity.

Tom Temin: And you also find issues with the way people were trained and educated in their jobs. And so there were some deficiencies there, too?

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Yeah, or not trained. That was a big part of it. Yes, Tom, I mean, what you said is exactly right, we found significant problems with respect to the staffing levels, just the number of people there, but also some significant deficiencies with respect to training of the folks who were there, we found that in some situations, they were pulling in Park Police officers off the street to then man the dispatch center. Well, they weren’t trained in that way. And these are significant, these are high stakes moments, you know, when you’re talking about 911 calls, and there is specific training that needs to occur. And so that was a disturbing piece was that not only were they understaffed, but some of the staff that were there, were not trained at all in this. And so that was one of the recommendations we made was to bolster that, ensure consistent staffing, and ensure, you know, consistent training throughout.

Tom Temin: Yeah, because dispatch itself is a particular discipline within the realm of law enforcement. And it’s something that needs specific training?

Mark Lee Greenblatt: That’s absolutely right. Also, with the operations, in terms of the mechanics of what they’re doing, the computer systems and that sort of thing. These are high stakes moments, as I said, these could involve life or death situations, you know, these are 911 calls, just like you have in any situation. And we need to ensure that they are operationally sound. And that was a consistent problem that we found was just those failings and just the underlying machinery, they didn’t have callback mechanisms. So for example, if they’re in a 911 call, or someone’s describing a significant problem that’s underway, and the call gets dropped, right, you can imagine in an emergency situation, that would happen, right? They had no callback mechanism, they had no way of knowing who it was or where they were. And so that’s a significant problem.

They also had no recording of those calls. So for example, if you do have a call, and they say the address, but again, it’s in a panicky moment, the address isn’t quite clear. Normally 911 centers have playback, so they record and then they can just play it back and say, what was that address again, and then they can send that to the officers on the street, and they have the correct address. They have no recording and playback? Well, this is crucial stuff for a 911 center. So these are things that we found and identified. And truth be told the Park Police is taking it seriously. And we think they’re making changes that hopefully will resolve these.

Tom Temin: But it sounds like the changes they need to make are expensive.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Well, sure. I mean, they you know, I think that’s—

Tom Temin: Like the roof on the dispatch.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Well, yeah, right. Exactly. That’s, that’s pretty significant. My understanding is they’re working with a contractor to fix those issues on a short term basis right now. But yeah, I think some of these things have gone unfixed, if you will, for years. So hopefully, they can dedicate some resources to fix them now.

Tom Temin: And from the IG standpoint, this is kind of an illustration of a bigger theme for you, isn’t it?

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Yeah, sure. I think three things emerge from my perspective. One is just the merit, what we’ve been talking about, the actual problems that we found, that’s pretty significant. The other thing that I think that’s significant is this, I would say is a great microcosm of what good government oversight can be. This is something that we found in the context of one review, pulled the threads a little bit and found these other significant problems. And these problems affect public health and safety, Park Police officer health and safety. And the folks that were working in the dispatch center themselves, you know, their health and safety.

So for us, this is not a standard audit of financial issues. This is public health and safety, the health and safety of our own employees in the department. And so I thought that was a great microcosm, because then you also have the fact that we told senior leadership in the department and they acted quickly. They took it serious, they acted quickly. And they’re taking corrective actions now, based on what we found, and that, to me, it’s a great microcosm of just good government oversight, and that I think it’s a good story to tell.

Tom Temin: Mark Lee Greenblatt is inspector general at the Interior Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mark Lee Greenblatt: Thank you so much for having us on.

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