Blog Post Theresa Pierno Jun 1, 2021

Seeking Accountability for Park Police

One year after the violent removal of peaceful protesters at Lafayette Park, many questions remain.

One year ago today, hundreds of peaceful protesters seeking racial justice gathered at a national park site known as Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., to make their voices heard after George Floyd was brutally murdered in police custody. They banded together to fight for their beliefs, just as people have done throughout American history. One year ago today, police attacked those peaceful protesters, who were legally gathered, exercising their First Amendment rights, and authorities violently removed them from Lafayette Park, tear-gassed them and fired at them with rubber bullets.

I watched in disbelief as the horrific scene unfolded on my television screen. Without warning, a line of police armed with riot gear and shields began to march toward the protesters. Flash grenades erupted from all directions, and police began to fire rubber bullets into the crowd. Many of the protesters, stunned and disoriented, tried to flee, but were trapped in the crowd. The police line continued to move forward, pushing, ramming and smashing the people in front of them. Minutes after the forceful clearing of Lafayette Square, President Trump walked through that same national park site to stage a photo event in front of a historic church nearby.

This event wasn’t the first questionable incident involving U.S. Park Police, who were on the scene among a number of law enforcement agencies cracking down on protesters that night. It wouldn’t be the last violent and deeply troubling incident involving Park Police, either.

These protests are part of the very foundation of our democracy. People come to national park sites such as the White House, the People’s House, to make their voices heard. But that day, in one of our country’s most prominent sites for demonstrations, the right to peacefully protest was ripped away from the American people, an injustice we cannot and will not let stand.

The public deserves answers.

Policy Update

Letter Regarding Recent Park Police Activities

NPCA, along with partners, submitted the following letter to the Secretary of the Interior in response to recent Park Police events in Lafayette Park. 

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After the unprovoked and needlessly aggressive actions against protesters in Lafayette Park on June 1, NPCA and nearly 80 environmental organizations sent a letter to then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and then-United States Attorney General William Barr, demanding information about the actions of the Park Police during ongoing protests in Washington, DC. The violent incident raised numerous questions about the current mission and operating standards of the Park Police, and exactly what occurred on June 1. But one year later, the public has yet to receive answers.

NPCA will continue to urge Congress to strengthen its oversight of the Park Police and push the National Park Service to be more transparent about the events of June 1. We will also urge the Park Service to clarify the role of U.S. Park Police in ensuring a safe environment for all communities. As the voice and defender of America’s national parks, we know the National Park Service maintains high standards for its staff, from the Park Police to rangers, who must work to build trust with visitors. Moving forward, Congress and the administration must approach the challenges facing the Park Police through both a focused lens to better understand the June 1 attack and a wider analysis of the resources, tools and policies that are needed to best serve the public and our national parks.

Above all, the Park Police must be accountable to their mission to provide “quality law enforcement to safeguard lives, protect our national treasures and symbols of democracy, and preserve the natural and cultural resources entrusted to us.” We believe the below recommendations will provide a deeper understanding of what long term and immediate actions should be taken.

To ensure more oversight:

  • In 2001 and 2004, Congress authorized funding for reports and investigations into the Park Police’s mission, budget and work alignment. We should continue these reports.
  • Department of the Interior should conduct a report or investigation into the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Park Police in Washington D.C., San Francisco and New York, detailing where they are operating.
  • Department of the Interior should reexamine its plans to convert Park Service law enforcement rangers to federal law enforcement officers to verify that this change aligns with the mission and vision of the Park Service.

To ensure greater transparency, the Department of the Interior should provide:

  • A written transcript of the conversation between Attorney General Barr and Park Police officers on June 1 prior to the authorization of the Park Police moving on the crowd.
  • Better documentation of the Park Police’s use of force, and, as a federally funded agency, this documentation should be available to the public.
  • More public reporting on arrest incidents and the demographics of people arrested.
  • Examination of the police training process and investment in de-escalation and anti-bias trainings.
  • A five-year audit of the Park Police budget to justify funding allocations (training, weapons, riot gear, etc.) and whether the growing budget is properly meeting Park Police needs and mission.

Will a new chief bring new expectations?

The appointment of Chief Pamela Smith is a hopeful step toward creating an inclusive and safe environment for all park visitors, including those exercising their first amendment rights. With decades of experience and knowledge of the Park Police, we believe Smith has the experience to seize the opportunity and address longstanding systemic concerns over policing and public safety. Chief Smith has already announced that she will require Park Police officers to wear body cameras. While this is a positive first step, many more steps are needed to ensure public safety.


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The Park Police is one of our nation’s oldest federal police forces, and with this history comes a great burden to ensure park staff are adhering to the high standards we expect of them. NPCA looks forward to working with Congress and the Department of the Interior as they tackle the challenges facing police and the best ways to make parks safe and accessible for all people.

About the author

  • Theresa Pierno President and CEO

    Theresa Pierno is President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. She joined NPCA in 2004 after a distinguished career in public service and natural resource protection, and has helped to solidify the organization's role as the voice of America's national parks.