“You’re on my property,” the 39-year-old told officer-technician Stephen Wolford, who has been on the force for just over four years.
“This is the Pakistani embassy,” Wolford told the man, who was dressed in shorts and sandals and handcuffed on the front lawn, surrounded by police and embassy officials.
Wolford is one of about 1,700 uniformed Secret Service police officers whose primary job is to protect the White House grounds, an 18-acre fortress where the president lives and works and where the agency must rapidly evolve to adapt to new threats. But officers also fan out around town responding to calls and helping with security at about 500 foreign missions and similar properties across the district.
The uniformed division — not to be confused with the iconic suit-clad agents who protect presidents and dignitaries — turned a century old on Sept. 14. The birthday comes as the Secret Service is recovering from a string of embarrassing security lapses in the early to mid-2000s that engulfed both the protective detail and the uniformed division.
In one incident in 2014, an intruder jumped the fence and managed to get past multiple layers of security and into the East Room of the White House before being detained. Recently, the agency has also been thrust into the center of political controversy over allegations that then-President Trump tried to get his protective detail to take him to the Capitol on Jan. 6 when rioters overtook the building.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform concluded in 2015 that rank-and-file officers and agents had “lost confidence” in their leadership and described the Secret Service as an “agency in crisis.” The report faulted disciplinary procedures and what it said was dangerously low staffing.
New Breaches Revealed in Report That Says Secret Service Is ‘In Crisis’
The Government Accountability Office found similar problems in its own report released in December 2014 and recommended more training and improvements in security measures. In January of this year, the GAO said the agency had successfully implemented 13 of its 19 recommendations, including increasing the size of the uniformed force. Its goal is to have 1,805 uniformed officers by 2025.
The GAO said in its January update that construction of a new, taller fence around the White House, which began in 2019 and is designed to prevent people from climbing over it and onto the grounds, is behind schedule. The Secret Service attributed it to a number of factors, including demonstrations and the discovery of power lines.
The head of the Uniformed Division, Alfonso M. Dyson Sr., said in an interview that no one has successfully scaled the new fence and that he welcomed the criticism of the agency he has been with for 32 years. He said officials are making progress on the recommendations.
“When I see these reports, it just tells me that we need to take a look at the things that we’re doing to see if we need to adjust something or train better or do some things a little bit differently,” said Dyson, who became named chief January 31. “I think constructive criticism is a good thing.”
The president of the union that represents uniformed Secret Service officers declined to discuss the reports, saying in an email that to require talking about security issues “would be a breach of our duty.”
As Dyson strolled around the White House and Pennsylvania Avenue one day last week, a few clumps of tourists gathered, a group claiming Biden has left Latin America held a news conference, and a Biden supporter displayed a sign that honored families of the victims of 9/11. , 2001, terrorist attack.
The nation’s capital, and especially the White House, are popular targets for locals who live around the corner and from others who come from around the world to make their causes known. Dyson described 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as “kind of a high street,” he said, akin to a “People’s Avenue.”
Dyson said Secret Service officers have made more than 500 arrests across the city this year, many assisting D.C. police on calls unrelated to foreign missions, and have seized dozens of illegal firearms, including some near the White House . The chief said he doesn’t sleep much at night, his mind “constantly racing” about threats and what might come. “You just don’t know when something is going to happen,” he said. “I know something will happen one of these days. And again, that’s why we train and prepare.”
The uniformed department began as the White House Police Force under the administration of President Warren G. Harding, joined the Secret Service in 1930, and assumed its current name in 1977. In many ways, those who work on it are just like any other police officer.
Accompanied by a Washington Post reporter on a recent shift, Wolford ticketed a car illegally parked in a diplomatic lot outside the Polish embassy and drove to a report – later deemed false – of a woman cutting herself inside the Azerbaijani embassy.
But some calls take on heightened concern when they affect an address connected to the executive branch, as when a construction worker knocked Wolford down one day last week after an unmanned vehicle hit a fence near the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory. Police, worried about an attack or a bomb, closed streets, although they later learned that a driver had parked and simply forgot to apply the vehicle’s parking brake. A busload of migrants sent by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to the vice president’s residence also triggered a security alert.
Protecting foreign missions can also present special challenges. The war in Ukraine drew armed wannabe soldiers to the embassy who volunteered to fight. And extra officers had to be sent to the Russian Embassy for anti-war demonstrations.
Construction will begin this summer to make the White House fence taller
Even those mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II demanded the attention of police around the British Embassy. Wolford noted the sad occasion, but also that there are people who don’t like the British monarchy. “So you have to be very careful when people are laying their flowers,” he said as he passed the embassy in his cruiser a few days before the funeral. “There could be bad actors out there.”
And then there are the mental health calls.
Wolford has completed crisis intervention team training to deal with people experiencing mental illness, and he said he recently helped a man jump from the Taft Bridge over Rock Creek, south of the National Zoo. He is part of a growing number of federal officers certified to help people in mental distress, which he said helped with how he dealt with the man who claimed to own Pakistan Embassy Chancellery Building.
A person on embassy staff had identified a Secret Service officer and said the man had entered the building, claimed ownership and planned to change the locks, according to an arrest affidavit filed in court.
That officer took him outside as Wolford and others rushed to the call. The man remained calm but insisted he was the rightful owner of the building and told Wolford he had given money to someone online.
“I have proof that I bought this,” the man said. Referring to the embassy staff, he added: “I have been in constant contact with them.”
Wolford had officials run the address, and a dispatcher sent back that the building was actually owned by Pakistan. Police said they even checked with a real estate agent the man told them had brokered the sale. The real estate agent told police the building was not for sale.
Authorities said the man was taken to a hospital for treatment of a pre-existing medical condition. Police said he was charged with illegal entry.