By Debbie Siegelbaum - 07/31/12 09:00 AM EDT
U.S. Capitol Police officers working outside during one of the hottest Washington summers in memory have accused their department of disregarding their welfare by taking away umbrellas they’d used as shelter from triple-digit temperatures.
“We’re roasting out here,” said one officer with nearly a decade on the force who, along with other officers, paid for the tent umbrellas out of their own pockets.
“You see guys trying to seek shelter under trees.”
“The safety and welfare of employees is paramount,” Baboulis said.
Earlier this month, an estimated 15 officers within the Capitol Police House division — responsible for security south of the Capitol from Third Street SW to Third Street SE — pooled their own money to purchase stationary tent-umbrellas to shield themselves from the brutal sun and temperatures that have frequently topped 100 degrees.
Less than a week later, department management demanded the umbrellas be taken down.
Officers posted along a stretch of Independence Avenue SE, where the tent-umbrellas were briefly in use, reported that the road’s blacktop served to increase the already oppressive temperatures. Add to that the thick dark uniforms and heavy body armor the officers wear, and the daily stint spent outside — from two to five hours — becomes nearly unbearable.
The department, however, says it is following a plan to bring the officers relief.
“We do, in fact, have an inclement-weather plan in place. We continue to assess it as necessary,” Baboulis said.
That plan includes rotating officers in and out of cooler areas on a frequent basis, as well as providing water when temperatures top 90 degrees.
But that’s just not enough, according to more than a dozen Capitol Police sources who spoke to The Hill on background because they feared recrimination.
“We’re not taken care of at all,” lamented one officer in the Capitol division.
“They provide water and that’s it,” he added. “We get the cheapest water they can find. I could go get you a bottle and hold it up to the light and show you the plastic breaking down from the heat that is floating in the water. I avoid it.”
According to the officer, he and his colleagues have approached the department with weather-related recommendations, including amended schedules and post change-ups. None has been implemented.
“We’ve gone to them with suggestions, and they just want nothing to do with it,” the officer added. “Everything that we come up with that’s kind of practical but a little thinking outside the box, they think looks bad.”
Several officers claimed the department makes decisions based on aesthetics, as opposed to what is in the officers’ best interests.
Those decisions include last year’s ban on wearing shorts, the inability of officers to remove their hats unless it tops 95 degrees — and even then not without watch-commander approval — and a policy under consideration that would require those with visible arm tattoos to wear long sleeves.
“The thing is, the people who make the decisions sit in the office all day,” the Capitol division officer noted. “We had the big fans that blew mist on us. [Management] said they looked horrible, even though they were very helpful.”
Multiple officers in the Senate division echoed those frustrations.
“We’ve tried for the umbrellas, we’ve tried for the water misters and we’ve tried changing the schedules,” said an officer stationed near the Senate side of the Capitol who estimates he spends eight to 12 hours a day outside.
“We tried cooling vehicles, too,” the officer said, referring to patrol vehicles sent to posts to provide officers with brief air-conditioned relief. “They won’t let us use those, either.”
Several officers noted that such relief vehicles had been scaled back in recent months, and will likely be taken away completely in the near future. The department declined to comment on the matter.
The Capitol Police Labor Committee has also attempted to intervene on behalf of the officers and has offered to pay for relief equipment, but to no avail.
“We’ve offered to buy umbrellas and misting fan machines, and the department doesn’t move on it,” Chairman Jim Konczos said.
“We’re still waiting to hear back,” he added. “Something needs to be done.”
Ultimately, officers noted, the department’s decisions affect not only the employees, but everyone on Capitol Hill.
“Guys get frustrated and it gets hard, because when you’re hot and you’re tired and you’re working 12-hour days, you get angry with each other, you get angry with the public, you get angry with the staff,” said the Senate division officer. “It’s definitely a problem.”
It’s a problem that hasn’t gone unnoticed. One high-level House staffer with ties to the Pentagon expressed anger with how Capitol Police officers are being treated.
“I find it personally offensive, I find it disgusting that we have Capitol Police standing there protecting us when they have reasonable procedures, equipment that could be put in place so that they wouldn’t have to stand in 110-degree temperatures,” the staffer said.
“They cannot provide us safety if they are suffering in the heat,” the House staffer continued. “We can put machine guns around them, but if their mind isn’t thinking clearly because they’re under thirst duress, they’re not protecting us. It is in the interest of me and the members of Congress that they be treated humanely.”