Get our free newsletter
If you want to get into One Judiciary Square, the downtown building that houses many of the District’s bureaucrats, you have two choices.
First, you can go through the metal detector. After a lengthy wait, you’ll be treated to the whims of the city government’s security guards and how they’re feeling that day. Maybe you have to take off your belt, maybe you have to take your laptop out of the bag. It all depends on who’s running the security line.
Alternately, according to a recent report from the Office of the Inspector General, you could just get a taco. That’s because One Judiciary Square’s food court, which “boasts” a Baja Fresh, has both a street-side opening to the public and access to the rest of the building that’s past the metal detector. Someone walking into the food court, according to the OIG report, could use that loophole to bypass security entirely.
Already this month, the D.C. area has seen two false alarm reports of gunmen at Walter Reed in Bethesda and the Navy Yard. Both Mayor Muriel Bowser and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier praised police response to the Navy Yard incident. But according to the OIG report, the District government hasn’t always been as vigilant about protecting its own buildings—and ignored earlier recommendations to make its own staffers safer.
The new OIG report exposes an array of problems with the Protective Services Division, the branch of the Department of General Services that handles security at District government properties. Besides the security hole at One Judiciary Square, the report found that background checks on staff are missing.Then, those same staffers miss training for the weapons they’re supposed to use to protect government buildings.
PSD’s problems would be bad enough if DGS weren’t already aware of these problems. But the OIG report was actually a follow-up to an earlier 2010 report that found the same problems in the District’s security. Out of 24 recommendations made in the 2010 report, DGS wasn’t in compliance with 13 of them—more than half—when they were re-inspected last year. The agency was also only partially compliant with four of the recommendations.
It’s not that the District government doesn’t have experiences with the kinds of shootings that metal detectors at government offices are meant to prevent. In 1977, Hanafi Muslims took over the District Building, killing a reporter and wounding then-Councilmember Marion Barry. Despite that real-life example, though, the OIG report found DGS apparently uninterested in making buildings safer.
Five years after OIG first warned the District about security holes at One Judiciary Square, employees reported to investigators that they were still open. Along with the food court, anyone looking to skip the security line could go through the parking garage or the Old Council Chambers to get inside the building.
“Visitors routinely enter at these locations to avoid having to undergo security screenings,” the report reads.
That means that the often-lengthy line for the metal detector at One Judiciary Square wasn’t just a hassle—it was useless.
Anyone looking to cause trouble in a District government building, though, might not even need to dodge the security checkpoint. The OIG report found that new recruits to the Protective Services Division underwent less training than District law requires. Other officers weren’t recertified in using batons or pepper spray. When PSD officers were trained, the agency struggled to track their hours to make sure that they met requirements.
Additionally, despite a union contract that promised physicals, PSD officers didn’t undergo biannual exams to make sure they were in shape. OIG found no evidence of new physicals for any PSD staffers, even though 70 percent of them had been on the force long enough to require one.
While PSD is tasked with keeping troublemakers out of District buildings, the agency wasn’t doing enough to make sure the same type of people didn’t make it into the division’s own ranks. Re-inspecting the agency last year, OIG found that there wasn’t a procedure in place for non-criminal background checks on applicants.
When the agency did do background checks, they weren’t documented. OIG found that, out of 83 reviewed personnel files, 63 didn’t have proof that the District had run a criminal background check on the PSD employee.
There’s good news for scofflaw PSD employees who do run afoul of the agency, though: Discipline at PSD, according to the agency, is pretty lax. Despite warnings in 2010 that some officers could break District personnel rules without being punished—thanks to friendships with PSD higher-ups or a basic lack of documentation—PSD didn’t have a written policy on discipline when OIG reinspected the agency.
Officer Leroy Williams Jr., who chairs the PSD’s branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, says the department is dangerously understaffed.
“We have lost many officers over these last couple years, but none of them have been truly replaced,” Williams says.
The lax state of DGS’ security at government buildings can’t be blamed on the new Bowser administration, since most of the OIG report covers last year, during the Vince Gray administration. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose D.C. Council committee oversees DGS, thinks the security problems at DGS have been resolved since the OIG report came out three months ago.
“They responded and they’ve taken appropriate action,” Cheh says.
DGS spokesman Darrell Pressley echoes Cheh.
“Our goal is to respond to all of them and address each of the various items, and we have done that,” Pressley tells LL.
Of course, the District was supposed to implement the 2010 report’s recommendations, too, and that didn’t happen. Check back in another five years or, depending on some criminal’s plans, a lot sooner than that. CP
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 650-6925.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery