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 second of a 3-part series in the Dispatch.
On Friday afternoon, December 5, 2004, U.S. Park Police Chief Theresa Chambers had an experience she will never forget. She entered the Department of Interior headquarters through the garage, as the media were already out front in force. By 4:30 in December, it’s already getting dark out, so no sunlight was coming through the building’s windows and the halls were dimly lit.
“As I walked down the hall,” Chambers said, “the people who were still there dove into their offices and shut their doors behind them.” When she walked to the area where she always hung up her coat she gave a big smile and said hello to the receptionist; the woman started to cry.
Chambers then walked back to the reception area and started to make small talk with another woman she knew, and that woman started to cry, mumbling “God will be with you!” Heading into the meeting she had been called to, she saw her boss, one of the ranking solicitors for the Department, and three armed special agents. Her boss gave Chambers a letter to read. She quickly realized she was being suspended; but the letter didn’t say why.
“What is it you’re alleging I’ve done?” she asked. “We’re looking into that,” was the response. When pressed, her boss—National Parks Service Deputy Director Don Murphy—said that Chambers had violated two federal regulations, including insubordination. Every nerve in Chambers’ body went on high alert. “When did I ever fail to obey an order?” she asked. But at that point, Murphy said he would say no more.
It was then that Chambers thought of a letter she had sent to the Director of the Parks Service—Murphy’s boss—only a short time before. The letter was blunt—detailing the deteriorating relationship between Chambers and Murphy and claiming an “increasingly hostile work environment.” “Gentlemen,” she asked, “are either of you familiar with a letter I had delivered to the Director?” Chambers says Murphy looked at the lawyer, the lawyer nodded his assent, and Murphy replied, “Yea, I’ve seen it.” “Well, does the term ‘whistleblower’ mean anything to you?” she asked. No response.
“So you’re suspending me but you won’t tell me what I’ve done?” “It’s in the Washington Post,” was the response. Just when Chambers thought things couldn’t get any worse—they did. She was told she had to surrender her badge and her gun—the ultimate humiliation for a cop. Chambers says she was seething. Having to walk back down that hall stripped of her badge and her gun—in essence, stripped of her identity—was devastating. “It was more humiliating than walking down the hall naked,” she says. “I’m the most modest person you could ever know, and I would rather have done that.”
She firmly believes it was overkill. When an officer attacks someone—if he commits a crime, if he’s drunk—then, yes; the gun is the first to go. But just for talking to the Washington Post? Chambers was driven back to her office (she wasn’t allowed to drive her police vehicle) while in a state of disbelief. Because she naively believed that this was just Murphy’s doing, she remembers thinking to herself, “Boy, he’s going to be in such BIG trouble when they find out what he’s done!” The local TV crews were there to document what happened next: when Chambers arrived back at her office, more than a dozen of her officers were lined up, applauding her and saluting.
“Don’t worry,” she told them. “I’ll be back before you know it.” And she believed it. By then, someone had called Chambers’ husband, Jeff (a retired police officer), and told him what was going on. By the time she got home he was waiting—with a gift. He had found a gold gift bag in the basement. Using his own old badge, he traced the outline on the bag, put a nameplate under it, cut it out, and wrote on it “Badge of Honor and Integrity.” He pinned the homemade badge on her, saying “You’ve never walked into this house without a badge, and you’re not going to start now.” For the 7 days that followed that Friday meeting, Chambers says she and her husband didn’t eat and didn’t sleep and—between the two of them—lost 17 pounds. The press, at this point, was reporting every detail of the story; eventually an editorial would run in the Washington Post titled “Punished for the Truth.”
One week after leaving the building in disgrace, Chambers was called to a “secret” meeting to address her future, complete with lawyers on both sides. Chambers was told that she was being given the chance to return to her job, if she agreed to a series of stipulations—the first being that she would stand side-by-side with Donald Murphy at a press conference and continue to work for him, under a new set of rules. But Chambers says she couldn’t imagine continuing to work for Murphy. She also thought—what would I say to my parents? What would I say to my husband? How could she explain to them why she was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with this man at a press conference? As if all was forgiven? It was unthinkable.
So was the list of demands—one which specifically said that Chambers was not to talk to the press without prior approval. Chambers felt that this would make it virtually impossible to do her job, if she had to stop during every potentially explosive situation when reporters were bombarding her with questions, and say “Excuse me, but I have to clear this with my boss.” So she refused their conditions; and the fight was on. Chambers may not look like a fighter—in her 50s, and only 5’4.” Underneath her large chief’s hat, obviously designed for someone bigger and broader, her unlined face hosts a ready smile. But inside is obviously the stubbornness of a pit bull, which she would put to good use over the years to come.
Seven months after her suspension, and within an hour of filing an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB—the board that handles these cases for federal employees), Chambers heard on WTOP Radio that the Department of Interior had fired her.
End of Part 2