The U.S. Park Police will make history when its next police chief takes the reins of the department on Sunday. Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the force, will become the first African-American woman to lead the police force.
“I am humbled to serve in this position,” Smith said.
Speaking during a virtual news conference Thursday, Smith said that though she may be the first African-American woman to assume the role, she hopes she will not be the only one.
“I think the leadership understands that there is a need not just across the U.S. Park Police but across the workforce as a whole to ensure that we are inclusive and that we promote a diverse workforce,” Smith said.
Smith comes to D.C. after heading the U.S. Park Police’s New York division. She has served as the acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division during her time with Park Police.
Smith will take over control of the department from acting Chief Gregory T. Monahan, who assumed the position when previous Chief Robert MacLean was promoted to head the Office of Law Enforcement and Security for the Department of the Interior.
Among her first orders of businesses, Smith said, is to establish a body-worn camera program.
Smith said the goal is to launch the program at the department’s San Francisco office first, with the program expanding to departments nationwide by the end of the year.
She said the cameras won’t only be welcomed by the public but also by the officers who will soon wear them. “Body-worn cameras certainly provide enhanced public trust. It also promotes transparency and accountability, and it’s also very good for officers,” Smith said.
Several federal lawmakers have pushed for the cameras since the deadly 2017 police shooting of Bijan Ghaisar during a traffic stop by Park Police officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he applauds the incoming Park Police chief for deciding to establish the program.
“It’s been more than three years since Bijan Ghaisar was shot and killed by U.S. Park Police and his family is still searching for answers to understand what happened to their son and brother that day,” Warner said.
“While nothing will bring Bijan back, I am glad to see the new leadership of the Park Police taking steps that could help avert more needless tragedies,” he said.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., has pushed for the camera program at the agency.
“This long overdue step will improve trust among the communities that Park Police officers patrol,” Beyer said of Smith’s plan.
Beyer continued in an emailed statement: “I commend Chief Smith and National Park Service leadership for finally making this happen, and I hope it is the beginning of larger progress on transparency and reform for federal police. There is more still to do.”
After Ghaisar’s death, U.S. Park Police was also accused of a lack of transparency, releasing few details on the investigation into the fatal shooting. The department has told lawmakers that it typically doesn’t comment on internal reviews before they are complete.
When asked about the case and the accusations of a lack of transparency in the department, Smith expressed her condolences to the Ghaisar family, but that since she was coming from the New York division, she hasn’t yet been briefed on the case.
“It is certainly my intent to be briefed on the incident that occurred and I’m certainly looking forward to providing a response later,” Smith said.
The Ghaisar family released a statement about Smith’s appointment:
After more than 3 years of silence and lack of leadership, we hope that Chief Smith will bring a new era of integrity and transparency to the Park Police with an emphasis on the safety of the community at large. As Chief Smith assumes her role, we reiterate our calls for the termination of Park Police officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya and an immediate investigation into the murder of our son and brother, Bijan Ghaisar.
In 2019, the U.S. Justice Department decided not to press charges against the two officers who opened fire on Ghaisar.
But Amaya and Vinyard are awaiting trial in Fairfax in connection to the shooting.
Ghaisar’s family has also filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government over his death. The civil case has yet to go to trial.
U.S. Park Police also faced criticism last year during a racial justice protest at Lafayette Square in front of the White House. The department is accused of taking part in the forceful clearing of demonstrators ahead of a visit from then-President Donald Trump to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he posed in front of the church with a Bible.
“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the National Park Service director, said in a statement announcing Smith’s new role.
“Over the coming months, leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency,” Benge said.