Capitol Attitude

Capitol Police chief squares off against Hill 'mayors' in tense hearing

Oct. 3, 2013: U.S. Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine speaks during a news conference in Washington.

Oct. 3, 2013: U.S. Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine speaks during a news conference in Washington.  (Reuters)

Most city police chiefs must only please one mayor.

Not U.S. Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine.

He has 535 mayors.

As in 535 members of Congress. That's 100 senators, 435 representatives. Most with very pointed notions as to how to police their "town." This unique hamlet includes the U.S. Capitol, the adjacent grounds, the House and Senate Office buildings, the Library of Congress and a swath of city blocks carved out of Washington, D.C.

Some of Capitol Hill's "mayors" exercise their authority through the annual appropriations process. That's where members of the House and Senate appropriations committees summon Dine to hearings to find out what his department needs. But this year's hearings with Dine granted lawmakers the chance to grill the chief about three areas which "mayors" find vexing.

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One issue is how the USCP handled last September's nearby Washington Navy Yard shooting and why officials locked down the Senate -- yet the House remained open for business.

Then there was last autumn's car chase where officers shot and killed an unarmed woman who rammed a barricade at the White House and then sped to the Capitol. Some lawmakers are confounded as to why authorities would shoot and kill someone who didn't have a gun -- while she drove through the city with a baby in the backseat.

Finally, lawmakers want to know about doors. That's right. Capitol Hill ingress and egress. The mandatory set of spending cuts known as sequestration forced Dine to scale back some entryways around the Capitol complex. Each doorway is kind of like security at an airport. USCP must screen everyone who enters, most having to empty their pockets and walk through a metal detector before getting access.

There was a collective head scratching in Congress last fall when the Senate suddenly elected to go into lockdown nearly seven hours after Aaron Alexis massacred 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard just blocks from the Capitol. Yet it was business as usual in the House. The Senate posted USCP officers in the Rotunda - barring visitors and staff from walking into the Senate wing of the Capitol.

"Doesn't that create some confusion?" asked Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., at Tuesday's hearing. "Was the Senate more vulnerable?"

Dine told lawmakers he would prefer to "have an across-the-board, comprehensive, sort of cohesive message" for such incidents.

At the Senate Appropriations hearing on Tuesday, Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer told lawmakers "there's going to be a different perspective on how to handle it."

Gainer, who is a former USCP chief himself, said "it was a close call as to whether to open or close" but that he "erred on the conservative side" and gave the order to secure the Senate. Meantime, Gainer's counterpart, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, saw no reason to shift his chamber into a defensive posture.

Dine told the House hearing he didn't want to give conflicting signals again.

"We all need to be singing off the same song sheet," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

There's even more dissonance over how the USCP handled the high-speed chase through the city during the partial government shutdown which culminated in the death of Miriam Carey. Carey plowed a black Infiniti through a bike rack near the White House, striking a U.S. Secret Service officer. She then tore down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Officers attempted to stop her car in front of the Capitol, firing shots. Carey fled, drawing the chase up Constitution Avenue and ending in a crash by the Hart Senate Office Building. Officials still don't know whether a USCP officer or the Secret Service fired the shot which killed Carey. She was unarmed and had her 14-month-old baby in the vehicle. Carey's family has filed a $75 million dollar lawsuit against USCP.

"The incident in October made many of us uncomfortable," said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., queried Dine about how his officers performed during the chaos.

"I'm never happy when someone dies," replied Dine, noting that USCP made "split-second decisions and it's easy for any one of us to obviously sit here and second guess them."

Moran asked Dine if it would have been better for officers to shoot out the Infiniti's tires rather than aim for the driver.

"There's a lot of opinions out there but most of them are wrong and uneducated," snapped Dine.

The chief's quip was so sharp that it spawned a flash of murmuring among those attending the hearing.

One law enforcement source noted that "shooting out tires" is the stuff of TV shows and movies. Another law enforcement source said the concept is a relic of a bygone era and not really used in contemporary policing.

Later in an interview, Moran defended his inquest of the chief.

"At some point in the future, you're going to have another situation with someone in a car," said Moran. "If our opinions are so uninformed, who is to inform us? It's [Dine]."

During his opening remarks to the House panel, Dine characterized his officers as "America's Police Department." But even such an elite law enforcement agency wasn't spared the brunt of mandatory budget cuts through sequestration. As a result, USCP shaved $16 million by closing a handful of entranceways around the Capitol complex. Two officers must staff each open doorway and scan people for weapons. Thus, closing a few doors spared the force overtime. Still, those access points remain shuttered even though Congress later extinguished some parts of sequestration.

"I don't want to be a contrarian," said Wasserman Schultz when asking Dine about saving money. "But the sequester did your job for you."

Several lawmakers challenged Dine about long lines which develop outside the House office buildings due to door closures. Dine told the subcommittee that USCP was conducting a study to determine how to better accommodate the public. That response again lit Moran's fuse.

"Saying you're studying something is pretty weak when you're asked a direct question," charged Moran. "If it's a problem for the public, it's a problem for you."

Paul Irving volunteered that the average wait-time is only three minutes during heavy traffic periods.

"That's just not accurate," fumed Moran. "You may be detecting a bit of frustration but the answers seem to be insufficient to our questions."

The Virginia Democrat later joked that lags to enter the House office buildings may actually benefit one oft-ridiculed group of congressional visitors - many of whom are his constituents in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

"A lot of them (waiting outside) are lobbyists. So let them freeze out there. It's all billable hours," said Moran.

Most of the lawmakers at the hearing expressed similar concerns about issues for people to clear security and enter the Capitol complex.

"Access, access, access," said Stewart in his final words to Dine before the hearing gaveled out.

"Chief, you should be congratulated on being the only person who can unify the Congress around an issue," added Wasserman Schultz.

Lawmakers may want the USCP to ease entrée to the Congressional campus. But they also give the cops an earful when they demand more security or when something goes wrong. That may just be the nature of things in the congressional city of 535 mayors.

Moran defended his aggressive approach with Dine.

"If there are 535 mayors, most of them are a pretty tacit, supine bunch," Moran said.

And unlike other lawmakers, Moran may be used to tangling with police chiefs. That's because he served as mayor of Alexandria, Va., from 1985 to 1990. 

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.