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From “watchmen” to proactive patrol: History of the US Park Police

The United States Park Police — one of the nation’s oldest and most historic agencies — is an easily overlooked law enforcement agency with roots dating back to our first president

Looking back upon the storied history of policing in our great nation, the United States Park Police is an easily overlooked law enforcement agency with roots dating back to our first president.

The US Park Police have been on duty — beginning in the older parks in the District of Columbia — since the city’s inception. Originating as “watchman” around 1791, these officers were responsible to safeguard the newly acquired public buildings and grounds that were utilized by the President, Congress, and other functions of our nation’s government.

One watchman was assigned to the Executive Mansion — later known as the White House — and another watchman assigned to the Capitol. In the early days, these lone watchman did not have authority to make arrests and had to rely on local marines for assistance with intruders or other difficult situations.

Becoming the Park Police
Since those early days, the “watchman” has gone through several changes of organization, leadership, authority, and jurisdiction. Around 1880, the watchmen finally received the same powers and duties as the Metropolitan Police and were issued badges, batons and whistles.

Eventually, the move was made to change the “watchman” title to “park police” in an effort to avoid confusion and make it clear that the watchman is a police officer with the legal authority to arrest people as well as give those officers the respect they deserved given the job they were paid to do.

Today’s US Park Police are a division of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. They have full police powers in any unit of the National Park System, District of Columbia, City and County of San Francisco (Calif.), and the counties of Marin and San Mateo, (Calif.) along with several other areas. The US Park Police is a full-service police agency with Air, Marine, SWAT, Mounted, K-9, and criminal investigative units and are at times called upon to assist many of the other local and federal agencies with law enforcement work that needs to be done.

Heroes and Heroics
The US Park Police are a full-service, proactive agency capable of dealing with anything that gets thrown their way. Just ask the nearly 30 officers that received medals of valor for responding to, and effectively stopping the DC Navy Shipyard active shooter in 2013, or the many officers and air support units that were among the first on the scene at the Pentagon and World Trade Center on 9/11.

Add to this the rescues by the marine and air units, along with countless arrests of murderers and other violent criminals and you quickly realize this is an agency that can not only talk the talk, but can walk the walk.

The US Park Police have become heavily relied on to provide marine support for various enforcement and rescue operations on the Potomac River and have a strong community relations program in that area to educate users on boating safety and prevent accidents.

The US Park Police helicopter has been used for years to patrol the most restricted air space in the nation as well as assist other agencies when needed. The air unit has been part of several rescue operations including flying out severely injured people during the 9/11 attacks and even a few plane crashes on the Potomac River.

The criminal investigative unit proactively investigates and apprehends everything from narcotics trafficking in the major metro areas, to environmental crimes that occur in some the nation’s most remote areas.

Some of these officers have made the ultimate sacrifice — to date 13 US Park police officers have lost their lives in the line of duty from everything from gunfire, assault, to death from exposure resulting from a daring cold weather rescue.

Tip Your Cap
The US Park Police is easily taken for granted — the rest of us routinely recreate and visit some of our nation’s treasures and not take into account the behind-the-scenes effort that it takes to maintain visitor safety. Many of these historic treasures are doubtlessly on someone’s list as a great place to implement a terror attack. The fact that the public can safely visit these places a true testament to the good work of the Park Police in maintaining a safe environment for us to enjoy.

When you’re away from the job with your family enjoying some of our nation’s historic treasures, tip your cap and thank those officers from US Park Police — and other employees of the National Park Service — for the job they do. Let them know we appreciate their work.

Patrick (Pat) Novesky has spent most of his life working in a rural environment not only in law enforcement, but also has been employed as a wildland firefighter working several states and as a guide for a hunting outfitter. Pat’s law enforcement background consists of a 20 year career ranging from positions as a sheriff’s deputy, ranger, and police officer holding assignments as intelligence officer and investigator. Pat has also been assigned to two narcotics task forces. Pat has served as a police firearms and Verbal Judo instructor and has been involved with various training for all types of law enforcement & other users of the outdoors and remote areas. The past several years of Pat’s career have been spent working as a conservation officer in Northern Wisconsin. Pat’s goal is to bring a common sense approach to issues that pertain to the rural law enforcement officer. Contact Patrick Novesky