WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. Capitol Police know the federal government is looking for a few good men to marshal the skies, but the force doesn’t want to give up its own to get the job done.
The Transportation Security Administration has wooed away at least 46 veteran officers from the police force, offering them better pay and pension benefits. The result is a depleted Capitol Police force working at the furthest limits of its resources.
"It’s put a strain on our personnel," said Lt. Dan Nichols, spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police.
According to officials, four bodyguards for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., are already on the move to greener pastures, adding to the 17 percent reduction in the bodyguard force since Sept 11.
"That, coupled with the fact that we are already short, has made it very difficult for us," said Nichols.
The Capitol Police, which secures the Capitol grounds, diplomatic visitors, individual members of Congress and provides around-the-clock detail for House and Senate leadership, currently has 1,216 sworn officers and 116 civilian personnel. The department is authorized to staff 1,570 employees. New Capitol Police Chief Terence W. Gainer said he wants to increase that number to 1,981 to accommodate stepped-up security efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We've had a pretty aggressive recruiting drive going on, but the problem is competing with other federal law enforcement agencies," Nichols said. "The TSA has found the best way to (recruit officers) is by taking from other federal agencies."
The newly established agency, which is now in charge of putting federal marshals on planes and providing security for the nation’s busiest airports, wants only the best.
"Due to the pool of applicants we’re now getting, we are able to select from the best and the brightest and we are very happy with the applicants we have received and their level of experience," said TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O’Sullivan, who added that the agency, which was established in November with a $2.4 billion budget, is poring over about 200,000 applications.
O’Sullivan would not say how many air marshals the TSA will be hiring, but did reveal that the starting pay for a marshal ranges from $31,000 to $46,000, depending on experience. Starting pay for a U.S. Capitol Police officer is $40,000.
The boost for new air marshals, however, is the pension plan. A Capitol Police officer retiring after 25 years will get 39 percent of his salary. A TSA officer will receive 70 percent after 25 years on the job.
Mike DeCarlo, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the U.S. Capitol Police as well as other law enforcement departments within the federal government, said that the TSA is sweetening the pot for veteran officers by allowing them to go to the TSA and retire at the same time but with a better rate of pay.
"You can squeak out the five or 10 years doing something different, and retire at a higher rate. Guys who have families and stuff are thinking about that," he said. "Unless we do something with our retirement to make it comparable with other agencies, we’re going to lose these guys."
Congressional officials say they have received complaints about the disparities and what Nichols is calling a "talent drain" from the U.S. Capitol Police.
According to David Sirota, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the U.S. Capitol Police fiscal budget, there is an effort to bolster the U.S. Capitol Police budget, currently about $220 million a year, as well as level the disparities in pay and benefits among the law enforcement agencies.
"There will be an effort, at least legislatively, to make sure we maintain good officers," he said. "We expect a change."
But Gainer said it's not just about the money. He said his officers are frustrated with existing structural and jurisdictional issues that don’t allow them to do their job beyond strict boundaries. This has contributed to the loss of 78 officers since Sept. 11.
"What we have to do is make it a level playing field, but also let them have the jurisdiction and the authority to do their jobs," he said, relating a typical complaint from officers that once they step off the Capitol campus, their authority is diminished. Gainer suggested his department be given concurrent jurisdiction with other federal agencies.
Nichols said the situation is bound to get worse as the TSA opens up new positions for an airport security force, and the FBI hires hundreds of new agents in light of its own restructuring.
"We have to ensure that we have the ability to deter any type of activity – detect, respond and mitigate. It has become a difficult situation," Nichols said. "When we start losing 15-year veterans, it’s hard to replace that kind of experience and knowledge."