The U.S. National Park Service is in charge of securing America’s most symbolic icons and monuments, but it lacks the resources needed to investigate and stay a step ahead of potential bad actors.
More than 4.3 million people take the 15-minute ferry ride to visit the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island each year. Tourists are subject to airport-like screening when they board the ferry to the island, and a more stringent secondary screening if they want to enter the statue itself.
The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is a federal government agency organized within the Department of the Interior that oversees the screening and patrolling of the nation’s more than 400 national parks, monuments, and icons. Steve Keller, CPP, an expert in cultural property protection and head of consulting company Architect’s Security Group, says the NPS is “the poor stepchild” of government agencies and does not receive the funding it needs to prepare for a potential attack.
“By their very nature, these iconic sites are targets,” Keller explains. “If I were a terrorist, some of these sites are really attractive to me, because they’re symbols of the past. NPS is probably doing as good of a job as they can with the funds that are available, but these sites are grossly underprotected because of the lack of resources.”
Keller has worked with museums and cultural properties for three decades, and he says that the lack of funding for NPS has concerned him for years. As the organization approaches its centennial celebration next year, it may be more important than ever that NPS gets the “financial shot in the arm” it needs from Congress, Keller contends.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has named a number of iconic NPS sites as potential terrorist targets, forcing the organization to redistribute already scarce resources. In press statements, advocacy group National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) notes that rangers can be pulled from more rural areas such as the Rocky Mountains to guard the Statue of Liberty, for example. But this leaves the rangers’ original positions unstaffed.
Monument security, investigations, and disaster response falls to the United States Park Police (USPP), a unit of the NPS made up of 610 officers that has jurisdiction over Liberty Island, Ellis Island, and other iconic sites, such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California and the national monuments in Washington, D.C. Along with icon protection, the USPP also has an intelligence and counterterrorism branch, as well as a special forces unit that is responsible for large crowd management.
Each year, the NPS gives USPP discretionary funding, which is granted by Congress. But according to an open letter written by the U.S. Park Police Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) to NPS Director Jon Jarvis, what the USPP is getting is not nearly enough and leaves iconic sites vulnerable.
The letter cites a January FBI memo sent to all U.S. law enforcement agencies urging increased vigilance in the wake of terrorist attacks in Nigeria, France, and Australia.
“While many agencies have increased their security measures as a result of the FBI bulletin, the USPP has taken no additional precautions. The reason is that they simply don’t have the resources,” the letter states.
“What is lacking is sufficient staffing, sufficient financial support from the National Park Service, and proper equipment,” the letter continues. “We urge you to take immediate action to correct the problems plaguing the United States Park Police—to do otherwise will certainly lead to increasing the threat to public safety.”
The FOP has raised concerns that USPP is lacking in operational readiness—there are not enough supplies or personnel ready to respond to a critical incident at a national icon, according to FOP statements.
The NPS has capped the number of funded USPP officers at 639, although there is no study or analysis supporting this number, according to the FOP. In fact, the last USPP staffing analysis was conducted in 1999 and concluded that 820 officers were needed for the agency to operate safely—and this analysis preceded the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Although the USPP conducts intelligence and counterterrorism investigations, officers lack the equipment to analyze evidence from digital devices such as mobile phones and computers. “Despite being well into the digital age, the USPP’s capabilities to deal with digital evidence are extremely limited,” the FOP notes. “Since most people carry cell phones, most criminal investigations involve digital evidence.” The USPP also lacks any type of video analytics system, modern cameras or alarms at iconic sites. A reliable radio communications system and mass casualty response equipment and capabilities are also needed, according to the FOP.
Unfortunately, Keller notes, the NPS’s budget is unlikely to be increased anytime soon. In fact, there has been a 12 percent reduction in total budget for the NPS over the past five years, which leaves iconic sites guarded by the USPP and other NPS operations susceptible to security breaches. The NPS declined to comment on funding concerns or the letter from the FOP.
Most NPS sites lack the ability to upgrade or maintain even the most basic security tools, such as CCTV and perimeter fences, Keller says. A former NPS director testified before Congress in 2005 that the parks’ unfunded homeland security costs totaled $43 million annually, but NPCA estimates that the actual cost is likely much higher.
The timeliness of the data is also a problem. Most testimonies and reports on NPS funding or security, like this testimony and the USPP staffing analysis conducted back in 1999, are outdated. This is largely due to the fact that the organization is not studied on a regular basis.
Lax security at NPS sites has coincided with an increase in crime in national parks. And because NPS manages 39 percent of the United States southern border, inadequate security is another consequence of NPS’s scarcity of resources. One NPS site in southern Arizona, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, is a popular spot for illegal border crossing. The park’s staff has requested the construction of a 30-mile- long vehicle barrier, but the project cost is too high at $14 million, according to NPCA.
Keller explains that the problem runs deeper than just the lack of funding—NPS’s procurement system for security resources doesn’t serve the parks well and provides only the bare minimum. “They just don’t have the money to hire consultants and architects to specify more advanced security systems, but that’s what they need,” Keller says. “Getting a DVR and a couple cameras and having some ranger installing it himself is not going to solve our problem.”
The NPS has more than 20,000 employees, but it relies on volunteers for day-to-day support. This means that well-meaning volunteers could pose security risks. “Because they are shorthanded, the procedures are not necessarily the best, so sometimes volunteers incorrectly turn on or off alarm systems, prop doors open, and there’s the risk of internal theft,” Keller explains.