Zoo Police, Security Director Spar Over Safety Needs - NBC4 Washington

Zoo Police, Security Director Spar Over Safety Needs

"This is not a dangerous place": Security director



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    The zoo plans to hire eight more officers, but a few officers think they need more.

    How many police officers does the zoo need to keep you safe? 

    It depends who you ask.

    At least six zoo police officers have come to News4, admitting they were unhappy about recent shift changes and claiming that the low number of police at the zoo is creating a danger to the public. 

    "If parents knew... it was minimum protection, they wouldn't want their children there," one officer told News4's Kimberly Suiters. 

    The zoo has a total of 28 police on its roster, with anywhere from four to seven officers on duty per shift, according to a spokesperson at the Smithsonian Institution

    With 5,000 to 15,000 people at the zoo at a time, the ratio of officers to people is just not enough, according to the six zoo officers, who spoke to News4 on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. 

    "With two to three officers protecting, [if an] animal escapes, we wouldn't be able to help them," another officer said.

    But J.J. McLaughlin, director of the Office of Protection Services for the Smithsonian, and several other zoo police officers argue otherwise. 

    "To say that the zoo is not safe is absolutely inaccurate.  We have over two million visitors come here every year...and we had 66 criminal offenses in 2008.  The overwhelming majority of those were very minor in nature," he said.  "This is not a dangerous place."

    In the last two years, however, National Zoological Park Police (NZPP) records show more than 300 incidents at the zoo, including 70 robberies and burglaries, an arrest of a convicted sex abuser, and two arrests of teenagers for assaulting a zoo officer.  In some cases, the problems occured when animal habitats were breached by humans; other times, animals escaped.  

    If you look at the details, though, there has been no sexual or personal violence done to any zoo visitor, according to Smithsonian officials. 

    The officers who approached News4 also point to a 2002 security risk analysis which recommended a tripling of police on patrol -- a number McLaughlin totally disagrees with.

    "In this case.. we disagree the zoo needs 50 officers," he said. "That study was done in a post-September 11th concern era. No zoo security study has been done since that one. We don't have reason to."

    Fifty new officers may be too much, but officials at the Smithsonian do agree that the zoo needs a few more officers.  They plan to add as many as eight officers by Labor Day.

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