More Than 2,500 Suspicious Packages, Substances at U.S. Capitol Since 2013 - NBC4 Washington
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More Than 2,500 Suspicious Packages, Substances at U.S. Capitol Since 2013

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    U.S. Capitol Police gave News4's Scott MacFarlane a look at how the agency's bomb squad inspects potentially hazardous packages and substances. (Published Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015)

    U.S. Capitol Police have responded to more than 2,500 suspicious packages and substances on Capitol grounds since 2013, according to a review of police reports by the News4 I-Team.

    The agency’s bomb squad, a specialized unit of police technicians and hazardous material investigators, conducted those sweeps.

    Congressional leaders said the frequency of calls and incidents are a reason to increase funding to the police department.

    Some of the incidents to which the Capitol Police bomb squad responded made national headlines, including the unit’s investigation of a gyrocopter that landed on the Capitol’s west front in April and a pressure cooker seized from a vehicle on the grounds this spring. But the I-Team’s review found an overwhelming number of Capitol bomb squad calls are unknown to the public, including suspicious powders and unattended bags.

    Capitol Police bomb squad investigators locked down part of the Cannon House Office Building in April after a staff assistant found white powder in a mailing to Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). The powder was found to be harmless by the unit’s hazardous materials specialists but caused a scare for staffers in the congressman’s office. Doyle said the bomb squad blocked access to his office space and studied the powder for dangerous chemicals.

    “When (the bomb squad) comes in, they take over,” Doyle said. “They know exactly what to do. They roped everybody off so they could still do their work.”

    The frequency of bomb squad calls is not surprising and an indication of a proactive police force, Doyle said.

    “This is Washington, D.C. There’s a higher risk of things happening here than in other places,” Doyle said.

    The agency granted I-Team access to its training and meeting rooms in southwest D.C. The unit demonstrated a series of cameras, robots and hazardous materials suits. The I-Team footage shows bomb squad technicians using remote-controlled equipment to lift, inspect and move packages and bags from a distance.

    The protective gear is heavy and helps guard against explosions, debris and shrapnel. Bomb technicians must use bare hands to inspect some packages, despite the risk, said U.S. Capitol Police special agent bomb technician Frank Wilkes. Officers must also walk in close range to most suspicious items and potential explosives, he said.

    “You have to take that risk, because you have to take an x-ray (of some packages),” Wilkes said.

    Capitol Police special agent bomb technician Don Stensland said the unit helps respond to other major incidents off Capitol grounds. The bomb squad provided assistance to an emergency call at the Navy Yard in June and to a shooting incident in Silver Spring in 2010.

    “Professionally I can count on every one (on my team),” Stensland said. “There’s a great amount of pride down here.”

    Budget impasses in Congress have squeezed funding for U.S. Capitol Police. In 2013, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) issued a letter to colleagues warning the federal budget sequester made a “significant impact” on Capitol Police funding.

    “The Capitol Police training facility in Cheltenham, Maryland, has no new students to train,” Norton wrote. “Therefore, the number of classes there is significantly reduced.”

    A summer-long budget stalemate has delayed action on a U.S. House spending plan to increase agency funding by $20 million in 2016, according to reports by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.