Letter Regarding Park Police Activities in Washington, D.C.
June 4, 2020
Dear Secretary Bernhardt,
We write with deep concern about the recent actions of the United States Park Police during ongoing protests in Washington, DC. Like protests around the country, those in our nation’s capital are calls for justice for the Black community. We grieve and condemn the recent horrific acts of violence and intimidation against Black people in our country, and the June 1 expulsion of peaceful protesters from in and near Lafayette Park, a national park unit, which was both unprovoked and unnecessarily aggressive. We are appalled by this injustice. The Park Police have become a face of violence in the streets of our nation’s capital. On behalf of our millions of members and supporters across the country, we ask that you provide explanations for the Park Police’s use of force to clear a public space where people were exercising their constitutional rights.
Lafayette Park has a painful and evolving history. It has been a graveyard, a slave market and an encampment for soldiers. Fredrick Douglass’s Freedman’s Bank was once located on its borders and Dolly Madison’s house still stands adjacent to the park.1 As with all other sites under National Park Service jurisdiction, the agency is tasked with not only protecting the place and its history, but ensuring the public is able to access, learn, experience and enjoy them.
This is not the first public protest to take place in this space or in the national parks of Washington, DC, and it will not be the last. From the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 to the Women’s March in 2017, and all the gatherings large and small in between, people have come to the national parks in our nation’s capital to let their voices be heard and push our country along the path to form a more perfect union. National parks in the District of Columbia have been and must continue to be safe spaces for protestors exercising their constitutional rights.
It has been devastating to watch the Park Police stray so far from the vision they outline for themselves – providing a safe haven for enjoyment of parks without fear, serving people with respect and dignity, and ensuring citizens are free to safely exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.2 We do not believe that launching tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets at peaceful protestors are the actions of the “premier police organization within the Federal Government” the Park Police claim they are striving to be. These actions make clear that the Park Police are simply another example of the larger systemic issues across law enforcement and they must be held accountable.
These actions raise a series of questions about the current mission and operating standards of the Park Police:
- The Park Police have protected protestors and public spaces at numerous gatherings in the past.
- What has changed in the agency’s mission or guidelines that permitted the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on people obeying the law?
- Multiple law enforcement agencies have been involved in activities related to the current protests. Where does the Park Police fall in the hierarchy of these fellow agencies and how does or should their role differ from that of the Secret Service, Metropolitan Police Department and other relevant agencies?
- Does the National Park Service or the Department of the Interior have the authority to remove Park Police from participating in activities that are antithetical to the mission of the Park Police or the Park Service?
- What criteria does the Park Police use to authorize the use of helicopter assistance in law enforcement activities? What level of helicopter assistance was utilized by the Park Police during recent protests?
- As related to the activities of May 31 and June 1, what level of resistance justified the use of Defensive Tactics as defined in General Order 3615 – Use of Force?
- As related to the activities of May 31 and June 1, how is the Park Police utilizing incident reports stemming from the well documented widespread uses of force beyond Cooperate and Contact as defined in General Order 3615 –Use of Force?
- As related to the activities of June 1, what levels of the official chain of command3 participated in the decision to use Park Police to violently move peaceful protestors from Lafayette Park and adjacent areas of H Street NW?
- As related to the activities of June 1, were there any efforts made to obscure that it was Park Police that were actively participating in the violent enforcement activities?
- Following the activities of June 1, have there been any changes to mutual aid agreements that the Park Police agreed to among regional law enforcement entities?
- Does the Park Police have an established and public after-action analysis process?
- Does the Park Police have a method for the public to file a citizen complaint or commendation?
The Park Police may be only one law enforcement agency among many in the context of the protests in Washington, DC. But they are also ambassadors for one of the most beloved agencies in the federal government, the National Park Service. And just as our national parks are held to the highest standards, so too must be all those who wear a badge in their name, as well as those who lead the Interior Department.
The Black community and people of color deserve better. Our national parks deserve better. The public deserves better. And our democracy deserves better.