D.C. Police Debate Clarity of VIP Escort Policy

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    In the wake of the Charlie Sheen controversy, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier defended the department's policy on police escorts before the D.C. Council Thursday. (Published Thursday, Jun 23, 2011)

    The commander of the District of Columbia police unit that provides escorts and special details criticized department leadership for failing to acknowledge that such escorts are commonly done.

    The issue attracted public attention in April after actor Charlie Sheen received a police escort to a performance at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. Sheen tweeted a picture showing the speedometer over 80 mph as D.C. police escorted him from Dulles International Airport with blaring sirens and lights flashing.

    Thursday’s D.C. Council hearing on police escorts aimed to clarify the record and establish the department's policy, the Associated Press reported.

    Officers involved in the decision said the policy is unclear. In the case of Sheen, there was a public safety concern because of the large crowd at the hall, the officers said. However, it wasn't approved by higher-ups, and the use of sirens and lights violated non-emergency policy, NBC Washington’s Tom Sherwood reported.

    D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who once ran the division that approves escorts, cited her own experience and insisted the rules are clear, Sherwood reported. Higher approval is required for all but the president, the mayor and foreign dignitaries, Lanier reiterated.

    Lanier cited 10 years of escorts approved or denied for all types of celebrities and sports teams based on traffic and safety. Police confirmed that comedian Jon Stewart was turned down for an escort during his National Mall rally last year, and during President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural, police were deluged with escort requests, most of which were turned down unless they were requested by inaugural officials, Sherwood reported.

    Lanier said her department has identified 17 celebrities, including Justin Timberlake and Paul McCartney, who have been escorted by police in the last decade. Other police officials said the number was higher and criticized police department management for not acknowledging that escorts were commonly granted upon request.

    Lanier said that while celebrities such as Sheen should not be escorted in speeding police cars with blaring sirens, it was impossible to craft a policy that would unequivocally bar police from escorting an entertainer or other non-dignitary. She cited as an example a Britney Spears concert on the National Mall years ago that she said federal authorities deemed a national security special event, and an Indian wedding that took place on public streets in Washington and required a police escort because of the presence of an elephant.

    “You can't say there should never be a celebrity escort,” Lanier said. “In police work, you can't have a policy that lays out every single possible event. You have to have some flexibility.”

    Kristopher Baumann, the chairman of the police officers' union, blasted police department management for defending the officers involved in the Sheen escort by suggesting the ride was a rarity.

    “The effect of that is just poisoning the police department,” Baumann said. “If you do your job, if you follow the department's policies and procedures and those policies and procedures are wrong and embarrassing, the idea that you're going to be the one suffering the consequences ... you can't work that way.”

    The escorts were also criticized by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a nonprofit watchdog against police misconduct. The group's legal director, Carl Messineo, blamed the department for a lack of clarity on its policies.

    “It is as if the command staff view themselves as privileged to dispense escort services regardless of policy or public interest. Perhaps the command staff want to be a part of the celebrity entourage or have their photo snapped with (celebrities) when the opportunity arises,” Messineo said in his prepared remarks.

    Cmdr. Hilton Burton also suggested at the hearing that two subordinates who were transferred out of his special operations division were demoted because of the Sheen escort. Lanier has said that's not true.

    Council member Phil Mendelson called for the hearing after The Associated Press reported that other celebrities, including Bill Gates and Jay-Z, had received police escorts in the past two years.


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