U.S. Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford yesterday was relieved of his duties while a panel of federal officials convenes to resolve problems within the agency that were identified last month in an inspector general's report, officials said.
Chief Pettiford, who has run the department since March 2005, will retain his position but will be removed from duty while the group formulates a response to the report over the next two months, National Park Service spokesman David Barna said.
Mr. Barna said Chief Pettiford was removed to allow him to concentrate on the work of the panel.
"Any time there's an incident, [the chief] gets pulled away," Mr. Barna said. "This way he'll be able to focus on just this assessment."
But a report issued Feb. 4 by the Interior Department's inspector general criticized Chief Pettiford without naming him and accused the Park Police of an "overall lack of commitment to its icon security responsibilities," citing chronic understaffing along with a lack of coordination and training.
Retired Park Police veteran Salvatore Lauro will assume day-to-day command of the department, which had a budget of about $85 million last year and was responsible for protecting national icons including the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The police union representing Park Police officers last month called for Chief Pettiford's removal after the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, found that the number of sworn officers on the force shrank to 576, the lowest level since 1987 and a decline of 49 since 2001.
An internal survey of U.S. Park Police officers conducted by the police union last year showed that 97 percent of those who responded lack confidence in Chief Pettiford and 98 percent do not think the agency is as prepared as others to respond to a terrorist attack.
The survey also found that 98 percent think the agency's command staff was not doing its best to protect the public. In addition, 94 percent said inadequate staffing makes their work sites unsafe, and 85 percent described their work conditions as "unsatisfactory," according to the survey.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said she has closely monitored the Park Police since the September 11 terrorist attacks and blamed lack of funding for many of the department's issues. She said the panel - which will comprise about a half dozen officials - would likely flush out other problems.
"In the neglected state of the Park Police, it becomes difficult to distinguish management problems from sheer, unadulterated negligence," said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat. "The Park Police has across-the-board problems."
Former Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers, who was fired after making public statements in December 2003 about the lack of employees and resources, said yesterday that she thinks the panel is a step in the right direction.
"I think this shows that they're taking the inspector general's report seriously," said Chief Chambers, who now heads the Riverdale Park Police Department in Prince George's County. "I just fear for the citizens and their safety while they're visiting the Mall and those monuments."
Chief Chambers declined to comment on the job performance of Chief Pettiford, who worked with her when she was police chief in Durham, N.C. Chief Chambers hired Chief Pettiford shortly after she was appointed Park Police chief in 2001.
The Park Police is the country's oldest uniformed federal police agency, having been created by President Washington in 1791.
The agency provides foot, mounted, marine and air patrols to protect the Mall, Rock Creek and Anacostia parks; the Baltimore-Washington and George Washington Memorial parkways; and dozens of parks in the District, Maryland and Virginia. It also provides escort to Vice President Dick Cheney.