Monday, March 29, 2004

Tough Case for a Top Cop

Ordinarily I line up behind Brendan Behan, who once observed "It's not that I hate the police. It's that all the big bellied bastards that I do hate love the police." After all, there's a great deal to be said in favor of a healthy public skepticism toward any expansion of police power in a democratic society.

On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to envision the survival of a democratic society without someone around to insure that the public will is enforced in an orderly manner and the public safety preserved against threat. It's precisely because the police function is both necessary and suspect that those who elect to make careers in that arena, when they do so with a professional respect for the rights of the citizenry, deserve our respect.

All this brings me to the curious case of Teresa Chambers, the embattled Chief of the United States Park Police, mentioned here in passing a few days ago. By all accounts, Chief Chambers has an exemplary record over a period of a quarter century of public service. After retiring from the Prince Georges County Police with the rank of Major, she became the Chief of the Durham, NC, Police and then, in 2002, the Chief of the Parks Police, charged with the the protection of public safety in National Parks, various monuments and federal parkways.

It's a career of impressive achievement, and, though it perhaps it shouldn't, it bears mention that it's a record particularly impressive for a woman in law enforcement. That record has been tarnished, though, by the actions of a bureaucrat who has placed the reputation of a department and its hierarchy over the safety of those who Chief Chambers was charged to protect.

Last December, the Chief was hit by a gag order issued by Assistant Park Director Don Murphy, who then suspended her and initiated proceedings to discharge her. Interestingly, Murphy's actions began a few hours after Chambers filed charges that he was maintaining a hostile workforce. That complaint, though, is not among the enumerated charges. (The Chief's detailed response can be found here.)

What it all seems to boil down to is that Murphy thought the Chief was overly aggressive in advocating for a budget she deemed necessary to accomplish the vital public safety mission of the Parks Police, and she embarrassed her superiors by talking about it out loud. As Tim Noah pointed out in a Slate item last month, this is exactly the kind of case that the whistleblower protections in Title 5 of the U.S. Code are designed to cover, and as a lay observer, I agree with Noah's assessment that the Title 5 provisions alone should put Chief Chambers back in her job.

A growing roster of organizational supporters ranging from the Fraternal Order of Police to the Feminist Majority Foundation agree, along with a key roster of Congressional supporters. One of those leading the fight for Chief Chambers on the Hill is Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who puts the blame squarely on the atmosphere that pervades the White House. “The Bush Administration should disavow a culture of fear and retribution in the federal government that could prevent federal employees from speaking out and potentially put our nation’s security at home and abroad at risk," said Hoyer, "and, it should direct the National Park Service to re-instate Chief Chambers to her position.”

Virginia Congressman Jim Moran has also spoken out, saying "Four months ago, the Park Service indicated that Chief Chambers was going to be fired for the allegedly egregious crimes of telling the public the truth about security in the Washington, D.C. region and that the Park Police were understaffed. Yet, Chief Chambers is still on the federal government's payroll, indicating to me that either the Interior Department has a very thin case in trying to get her fired or they are waiting to let her go when the public isn't paying any attention."

Let's pay attention. Close attention. While the liberal blogosphere is crowded with lists of administration scandals, this case has recieved relatively little attention. When the Administration tries to silence a top cop for going the extra mile in protecting the people, it's something progressives should get mad about, and a bridge to reach those who too often confuse liberal with libertine.

Reinstate Chief Chambers. Re-defeat George Bush. And keep paying attention.


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