Federal building security agency short-staffed amid rise in threats

Federal employees and their office buildings are facing an increase in threats at a time when the agency sworn to protect them is running into challenges to fi...

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Federal employees and their office buildings are facing an increase in threats at a time when the agency sworn to protect them is running into challenges to fill law enforcement vacancies.

The Federal Protective Service secures 9,500 federal buildings across the country. But FPS Principal Deputy Director Kris Cline said last month that about 21% of its authorized positions remain vacant, and that filling them is a “continued challenge.”

Cline said told the oversight subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee that FPS has an authorized end strength of 1,131 law enforcement personnel, and is looking to fill all its current vacancies, including 200 unfilled law enforcement personnel positions, in fiscal 2023.

FPS, at its full strength, consists of 1,300 federal staff, about 944 of whom are law enforcement specialists, criminal investigators and canine handlers. The agency also relies on 15,000 contracted guard staff, called protective service officers, to conduct security screenings at federal buildings.

Sources confirmed to Federal News Network that the number of FPS inspectors — those directly responding to threats — is approximately 650. An FPS spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

“We’re all dealing with labor market challenges, the same as everyone else. We’re also competing for the same people,” Cline said during a Sept. 22 subcommittee hearing.

FPS, he added, recruits from the same pool of prospective hires as city, county, state and other federal law enforcement agencies.

The subcommittee,  however, is concerned that FPS is spread too thin to handle an escalation of threats against federal employees.

“Capitol Police has thousands of officers for one complex. You have 1,000 officers for 9,500 buildings. There seems to be a disconnect here,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said.

Cline said a new FPS class of 24 students began training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and other classes of new recruits are scheduled for later this year. FPS is also holding recruiting fairs at military bases and other venues, and is working with the DHS Chief Human Capital Officer on ways to bring on new personnel.

Beyond recruiting, retention is another challenge for FPS’ workforce, according to union representatives at the American Federation of Government Employees chapter representing FPS workers. Many of the retention issues come from the lack of complete retirement coverage for law enforcement officers.

“We don’t have a problem recruiting, there are lines of people trying to come to FPS. Our problem is retaining them once they get here because other agencies have better retirement than we do. Our attrition rate is faster than what we’re hiring. Our headquarters is still growing, but the field inspectors are still shrinking. Our workload is doubling and tripling. They’re trying to get us to do more with less,” AFGE Chapter 918 President Derek Washington told Federal News Network.

And though the agency is trying to hire more employees, the process of approving applications and onboarding new hires can often take up to seven or eight months.

“We’re trying to make a better working environment, a safer environment and a more equitable environment for our bargaining unit as a whole, and actually trying to grow without losing any membership. From the agency’s perspective, we want trained and knowledgeable employees. We want to keep them here and make a better environment,” AFGE Chapter 918 Executive Vice President Anthony Lopes said.

The short-staffing comes at a time when the agency is tracking an increase in threats against federal agencies.

The latest DHS-issued national terrorism advisory system bulletin identifies government facilities and personnel as potential targets. Cline said the escalation of threats is focused on the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the National Archives and Records Administration.

The subcommittee’s leadership expressed bipartisan outrage over the rise in threats.

Subcommittee Chairman Lou Correa (D-Calif.) said former President Donald Trump’s ongoing legal battle over classified records led to an attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati, and a rise in threats directed at NARA.

Correa said that “increasingly threatening language” has been directed at the IRS since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which gives the agency $80 billion to rebuild its workforce over the next decade.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) said FPS not being prepared against a rise in threats “could have catastrophic results.”

“Unfortunately, violence against the government and in turn against federal government, buildings, property and personnel is not out of the norm and has become more prevalent in recent years,” Meijer said.

FPS stations its personnel across the country based on the concentration of federal buildings and federal employees in a given area.

“The highest-risk facilities would have more people. We have more offices here in D.C. than we have in Ames, Iowa, primarily because we are needed here,” Cline said.

Federal real property management, including the physical security of federal buildings, has been on GAO’s High-Risk list since 2003. More recently, GAO recently found that FPS security recommendations are generally not implemented by agency physical security teams.

Catina Latham, acting director of the Government Accountability Office’s physical infrastructure team, said FPS made more than 25,000 security recommendations at nearly 5,000 federal facilities between fiscal years 2017 and 2021.

But agencies only approved 6,800 recommendations, and only about 22% of approved recommendations have been implemented, as of Sept. 22. An agency’s approval of a recommendation does not necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Those recommendations range from addressing physical vulnerabilities to ensuring policy or guidance documents are current.

FPS officials told GAO that some recommendations stay open for years, as it can take time to secure the funding and implement some of the more costly recommended security measures.

Correa said this GAO analysis indicated that FPS is not “prepared to play defense” against emerging threats.

“Your job is finding a needle in the haystack. Yet failure’s unacceptable. Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 — when you have failures, they’re big,” Correa said.

When it comes to implementing security recommendations, FPS isn’t the first or final word on implementation.

FPS is a fee-for-service agency, and makes security assessments and recommendations based on standards set by an Interagency Security Committee that counts 66 agencies as members. A federal building’s facility security committee must also decide whether it agrees with FPS recommendations or how it will implement them.

Latham said there is no mandate or law that federal agency tenants pay their share for physical security upgrades, but said “we need one.”

Scott Breor, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s associate director of security programs, said the ISC receives reports agency reports on their compliance with federal risk management processes, active shooter requirements and prohibited item requirements.

Breor said CISA this year completed a pilot to verify that federal buildings are implementing security recommendations, and is looking to roll the verification program out to agencies.

“It’s one thing to collect under compliance, it’s another to verify that compliance. So going forward, we’ll be able to verify what departments and agencies submit into the compliance system,” Breor said.

The General Services Administration, in its role as the federal government’s landlord, created FPS in 1971, but the agency has migrated under the Department of Homeland Security.

Even within DHS, FPS has bounced around within the agency and currently reports to its management directorate.

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