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Crime takes a dive, but who gets the credit?

Aug. 6, 2012 - 01:39PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington (above) has the highest number of violent and property crimes of any federal building.
The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington (above) has the highest number of violent and property crimes of any federal building. (File photo / USA Today)

The last few years have been notorious for attacks on federal workers and facilities. In 2010 alone, a man flew a plane into an Internal Revenue Service office in Austin, Texas, killing an IRS employee; a gunman opened fire at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, killing a court officer and wounding a U.S. marshal; and another gunman opened fire outside of the Pentagon, injuring two Pentagon police officers. And earlier this year, a man threw a fire bomb at the federal building in St. Louis, causing an explosion and a brief fire.

But for every high-profile incident, there are hundreds of thefts and assaults and even a few homicides on or near federal facilities, according to a Federal Times review of federal data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Last year, there were 172 assaults, 938 thefts and two homicides at the 10,310 federal facilities that are tracked, according to the data.

The data reflects all instances in which Federal Protective Service officers or security guards respond to an incident on federal property. It does not include incidents that take place nearby but are not on federal property.

But since 2005, incidents of violent crimes have plummeted: Thefts are down 53 percent; assaults are down by 52 percent. Homicides are steady at one or two a year. Likewise, thefts of motor vehicles have plummeted 79 percent, and acts of vandalism have dropped more than 40 percent.

The Federal Protective Service is charged with safeguarding federal facilities by screening, intelligence gathering and law enforcement. FPS did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Although the number of crime-related incidents is down, FPS does not deserve credit, say many lawmakers and outside experts.

John Roman, senior fellow and crime statistics expert at the Urban Institute, said the declining number of incidents reflects national trends. Violent crime is lower today than at any point in more than 40 years.

“If you are under 40, you are as safe today as you have ever been in your lifetime,” Roman said.

But he said there are places that buck the national trends — urban areas such as Baltimore, where crime rates are still high.

“Each community faces its own set of unique problems,” Roman said.

Many factors have contributed to the drop in violent crimes, including lower drug use, an increasingly older population and more crime prevention programs.

But lawmakers see FPS — with a work force of nearly 14,000 contracted security guards and 1,300 federal employees — as a troubled agency in urgent need of reform.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees FPS, said at a July 13 hearing that a troubling incident last year in Detroit illustrates the challenge FPS faces.

In that case, an FPS contract security guard working at the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building found a tool bag containing a metal box outside the building and brought it inside the building without screening it. It sat for three weeks in the building’s lost-and-found locker before it was screened and found to contain explosives. It was later destroyed by the FBI, and a Michigan resident was arrested and charged with attempting to maliciously destroy federal government property.

“The egregious mishandling of this IED package raises serious questions,” Lungren said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said FPS is inept at managing its contracts and extensive contractor work force. He complained that the contractor security guard who took the bomb into the Detroit building was suspended, not fired, and the company was fined only $1 million and still guards the McNamara Building.

He said the agency needs to better train its work force and hold employees and contractors responsible for poor performance.

“The nation cannot afford additional delay in securing federal facilities. Now it’s time for FPS to be held accountable,” Thompson said.

Thompson has authored several bills that would increase staffing levels at FPS, require greater training of contract guards, and increase oversight of agency spending.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, said FPS lacks a system for determining whether its staffing levels at each building are sufficient. FPS spent $35 million over four years on a program to do that, but it failed amid cost overruns and performance problems.

Called the Risk Assessment and Management Program (RAMP), the program was supposed to monitor FPS staffing levels across all facilities and spot places where more or less protection was needed. The agency pulled the plug on the program late last year.

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said FPS’ roughly 1,000 law enforcement officers are stretched too thin over the 9,000 properties they are charged with protecting. He said private guards receive less training and do not perform at the same high standards as traditional federal law enforcement officials.

“We do not believe that private security guards should be on the front line of federal law enforcement,” Adler said. His group is trying to educate lawmakers on the problems at FPS. “We don’t want people to be educated about these problems by a disaster,” Adler said.

FPS Director Eric Patterson, who took over the agency in September 2010, said at the hearing last month that it would take time to fully reform the ailing agency. He has instituted a number of reforms, including:

• Developing a strategic human capital plan to determine what skills and experience the agency needs in the future.

• Revising policies to better manage and monitor staffing levels of contract employees at each facility.

• Tying fees that FPS charges customers more closely to its costs to give agencies a more transparent view of what they are. FPS collects its operating revenue from security fees it charges customer agencies — the agency will charge 74 cents per square foot for fiscal 2013 and have a total budget around $1.3 billion.

Meanwhile, federal employees complain they often feel unsafe in and around their offices.

A Health and Human Services Department employee in Denver said in an email that people working at her building have been followed and harassed when leaving the facility. She said that although the area is relatively safe during the day, it is less so at night.

Another federal employee said in an interview that she was sexually assaulted outside of her workplace in Washington last year. She reported the incident to local police but not FPS. She said she has not felt safe since the incident, which happened just a few steps from her office.

Some federal facilities with especially high rates of crime include:

• The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington — which has an extensive grounds near several other federal buildings and about 5,000 employees from agencies such as the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and General Services Administration — has the highest number of violent and property crimes of any federal building.

The facility sits next to prominent national monuments and mass transit and draws thousands of visitors to its restaurants and shops, which are open to the public.

Since 2005, there have been 222 incidents of theft, burglary and assault recorded by FPS in or around the facility

• The Social Security Administration’s Metro West Tower, an administrative office and customer call center in Baltimore, has seen 221 thefts, assaults and other crimes since 2005. It has the second-highest number of violent and property incidents among FPS-protected facilities.

• The San Ysidro Port of Entry in Southern California has experienced more than 3,000 incidents investigated by FPS — ranging from violent crimes to fire alarms and building rule violations — since fiscal 2005. That makes it the facility with the fourth-highest number of FPS-investigated incidents in the country.

Staff writers Cid Standifer and Ross Landis contributed to the research and analysis for this report.

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