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U.S. may reduce number of police protecting federal buildings

WASHINGTON—The Department of Homeland Security wants to change its approach to protecting government buildings, and one result could be fewer federal police officers available to guard them.

The department's uniformed Federal Protective Service division patrols more than 8,000 government buildings in 120 cities, including Washington. According to an internal briefing document, the department is considering whether to employ a more "risk-based" strategy that would shift "limited resources" to higher risk facilities.

The document, which a homeland security spokesman characterized as merely a "brainstorming tool," lays out a plan that would cut around 250 federal police officers assigned to protect government buildings.

The agency has fewer than 1,000 uniformed officers, augmented by about 15,000 guards on contract from private security companies.

They're responsible for law enforcement and security at huge government complexes in the nation's capital, as well as federal courthouses, Internal Revenue Service offices, FBI regional headquarters and other agencies around the country.

Hardest hit under the plan would be the regions around the nation's capital and New York City. Both would lose around 40 percent of their federal police officers if the plan were approved.

Reductions would carry a risk, and the document outlined several. Among them: In the absence of guards, it would be up to federal workers to report "suspicious activity."

"Any pre-attack actions at a facility would only be detected by occupants or roving guards," the document warned. "Only reactive response will be provided."

Another potential downside could be a greater reliance on local police departments to investigate possible crimes.

"What it means is that protection of our federal properties across the U.S. would become the responsibility of the local police," said David Wright of Excelsior Springs, Mo., a federal police officer and the president of their union bargaining unit.

Homeland security spokesman Michael Keegan said the document wasn't accurate because "nothing's been finalized or approved yet."

"That document was created at a low level within the agency and never reviewed or vetted or approved by the director of FPS or the assistant secretary (of homeland security)," he said. "That document was developed to be used as a brainstorming tool within the discussions of the regional directors. It was never in a final format."

Keegan said, however, that the agency no longer would rely as heavily on a cops-on-the-beat approach to guarding federal buildings. He said he couldn't be specific about how or where resources might be shifted or about any details of a new strategy.

But he said the goal would be to "reduce the amount of risk of attack or terrorists' plans. The old way, there was a pattern in how our office provided security and how they patrolled. Now this pattern is completely unknown."

Randy Nason, the vice president of C.H. Guernsey & Co., an Oklahoma City security and architectural engineering consultant, said risk-based strategies were very popular right now and could be beneficial, "if the FPS is careful in how they evaluate their risk and prudent in how much they rely on the vigilance and observation of their employees."

But he added, "Employees get busy and focused on what they're doing and don't focus on what's going on around them."

Leslie Phillips, an aide to Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent Democrat and the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he was concerned because the Federal Protective Service had had "long-standing financial problems."

The protective service was created in 1971 as part of the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings. It moved to the newly created Department of Homeland Security in 2002, where it's under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.

The agency doesn't receive a direct appropriation from Congress, relying instead on the fees it charges other government agencies for building security.

The costs of private security contracts swallow up most of its budget. The size of the contract guard force more than doubled after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Last fall, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general found that the private guards used in Washington were "not consistently ... qualified and certified." He also said the agency paid an additional $1.2 million in interest to the companies because of late payments.

"Don't let anyone delude you into thinking this is designed to enhance homeland security," Eric Shulman, a union official with the American Federation of Government Employees, said of the proposal to reduce the guards around government buildings.

Shulman, whose union represents the federal police officers, said, "It is a proposal to save money. The agency has been under tremendous budgetary pressure the last couple years."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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