When Theresa Chambers was fired from her job as Chief of the U.S. Park Police, the story made headlines across the country. After a legal battle that dragged on for 7 years, Chambers got her job back. Now back on the job for 18 months, Chambers shares the details of that dark time in her life. For this story, she talked to COPS Office Assistant Director Katherine McQuay about what actually happened in December 2003. This is the first of a 3-part series in the Dispatch.
If you believe in signs—and Teresa Chambers sure does—then what happened the morning of December 5, 2003, was quite explicit. When she arrived at work and got out of her car, it was snowing heavily. As she stepped from the car into the snow that was already piling up, the bar of four stars that always sat on her shoulder, as part of her uniform, fell to the ground. That had never happened. It was a sign of things to come.
The trouble had actually started a few days before. That’s when Chambers had talked to a Washington Post reporter. Chambers was a favorite of the media, as she was usually accessible and always good for a sound bite. Her bosses had been fine with her forays into the press in the past, and they knew this interview with the Post had been scheduled.
This particular story had begun when the president of the park police officers’ union reached out to a reporter at the Post. The union was beyond frustrated with what was happening to the budget—funding was much less than it had been, staffing was being cut drastically, a lot of officers had left, and those still on the job were being stretched thin.
The reporter arranged an interview with Chambers to confirm the budget numbers and to ask about the situation. She basically confirmed it all—the reduced numbers, the dangerous situation it created for her officers, and the potential problems they could face.
On December 2, 2003, the story ran in the Post with the headline: “Park Police Duties Exceed Staffing; Anti-Terror Demands Have Led Chief to Curtail Patrols Away From Mall.” The article went on to quote Chambers as worrying about the effects of the budget decreases, including the rise in accidents on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (the parkways are under the jurisdiction of the Park Police, as are all National Park Service areas, which are primarily in the Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas). Another focus of concern was the fact that, post 9/11, the order had been placed to have more officers guarding the monuments at the Mall, which meant fewer officers available for patrol and anti-terrorism efforts in other areas, which Chambers said was a big concern. The article ended with this quote from Chambers: “My greatest fear is that harm or death will come to a visitor or employee at one of our parks, or that we’re going to miss a key thing at one of our icons.”
By the time Chambers made it into the office that morning, a gaggle of reporters from a variety of media outlets was waiting. The head of the U.S. Park Police saying their budget was way below what it should be and someone could die as a result??? It was like an early Christmas gift left under the tree for the media; quite a story.
Chambers gave interview after interview as her press aide looked on. She says she vividly remembers them high-fiving after the last interview, with her press aide telling her that she had hit all her marks—having been supportive of both the Department of the Interior and the men and women who made up the U.S. Park Police.
The euphoria would prove to be short-lived.
That night, leaving a late meeting, Chambers found several voice mails from her boss, Deputy Director of the National Park Service, Don Murphy. The message: cease and desist. Specifically, he told her the message she was delivering wasn’t what the Department wanted and she was to stop all interviews until they talked.
Murphy didn’t talk personally to Chambers right away, but he did talk to the Post. Two days later, the Post headline read: “Park Police’s Top Official is Muzzled.” Murphy told the paper that Chambers had broken two federal rules: one barring public comment about ongoing budget discussions; and the other that prohibited lobbying (apparently the thinking was that Congress reads the Post. Chambers being in the Post decrying the budget = lobbying). Murphy was quoted as saying about Chambers’ interviews: “The things that we were seeing were troublesome, and we didn’t want her to get into any more problems.” And he also told the Post that Chambers had been told not to talk with the media until after a meeting that was scheduled with Park Service officials the next day. Specifically—that Friday. At 4:30.
It doesn’t take an employment lawyer to realize that a meeting with your boss on a Friday at 4:30—when things haven’t exactly been going swimmingly—is not a good sign.
At that point, all anyone knew was that Chambers had talked to the Washington Post, said some things that apparently weren’t politically correct, and was now up Rock Creek without a paddle.
End of Part One