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A Fired Cop,
A Search for Justice

Teresa Chambers, an adjunct professor in the School of Education, was dismissed from her job as chief of the U.S. Park Police after talking to a reporter. She wants her job back.

Photo by Will Kirk

Teresa Chambers sips coffee in a plush leather chair in her office, her hand occasionally coming to rest on the sidearm that, she says, has been torn from its holster "only at the firing range" during her year on the job. The chief of police in Riverdale Park, Maryland — a suburb of Washington with a mostly well-behaved population of around 7,000 — Chambers, Ed '97 (MS), seems content enough. A round, affable woman with close-cropped gray hair and eyes that glint behind wire-framed glasses, she oversees 19 officers who patrol streets troubled by two crimes on the average night.

But the low-anxiety perks of small-town policing haven't stopped Chambers from seeking justice over the circumstances that ended her last, and considerably more important, job. As chief of the U.S. Park Police, Chambers supervised 600 people who kept an eye on national parks and historic sites. She oversaw plans to deal with the prospect of terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, until she was fired in 2004. She says her downfall came after she told a Washington Post reporter that Park Police would have a tougher time protecting Washington's monuments while the department's budget was being slashed. The Department of the Interior, the agency that oversees the U.S. Park Police, says she was fired for a handful of offenses, including improperly disclosing budget deliberations and making public remarks on the security of the nation's parks and monuments. Chambers calls the charges "empty." (The Interior Department did not return calls requesting comment.)

Despite the grim ending, she recalls fondly her 27 months as chief in Washington, during which she often served as the face of the Bush administration's efforts to protect against terror attacks. "What a time to be leading the Park Police, right after 9/11, to stand up against terrorism with the White House as my backdrop," she says.

And she's determined not to let her old job slip entirely into the realm of memory. When she isn't maintaining order in Riverdale Park — or serving as an adjunct professor at the School of Education's Police Executive Leadership Program (PELP), where she teaches two graduate-level courses — she fights to get her $145,000-per-year Park Police job back, with back pay. Since her dismissal, she has become a cause célèbre for people and groups that believe the Bush administration punished people within its ranks for divulging information that didn't jibe with its political aims. As a whistleblower — albeit one who says she never violated the chain of command, as the Department of the Interior claims — Chambers has received legal advice from a group in Washington that helps people who have been fired for political reasons, and through them has garnered thousands of dollars to help pay her $100,000 (and counting) attorney's fees.

"If this weren't happening to me, I'd think it was something from a corny sitcom," she says. "Sometimes, I have to laugh." A lifelong Republican, Chambers, 51, recently switched her affiliation to independent. "I've seen too much," she says. "As a citizen, the treatment I've received scares the heck out of me."

Nearly all whistleblower cases are thrown out of a special appeals court set up to handle complaints by federal employees. But Chambers has bucked the odds. Her suit remains alive, having withstood the government's attempt to dismiss it in November, when a judge ordered it back to an employees' merit board for a decision that could come as early as this year. She and her attorneys are confident they'll win.

Johns Hopkins, where Chambers has taught midcareer law enforcement officers for the past two years, has offered a different kind of solace. Master's students have interviewed her for their research papers, and she has given speeches at Washington-area universities. Sheldon Greenberg, Ed '73 (MEd), director of PELP and an associate dean at the School of Education, first met Chambers 20 years ago, when she was a fellow in a police research forum that ended up becoming a think tank of sorts, and which resulted in PELP, a master's-level program. She helped form the program's curriculum and was one of the major shapers of its tight focus on diversity, Greenberg says. "She's a great leader in the field," he says. "She's always taking risks. The future for her is as bright as it ever was."

That future, Chambers hopes, will take her back to the past. Although she loves her current job, she' wants to have her name cleared and at least have the chance to return to Washington. "The incoming head of Interior could say, 'This is nonsense,' and make the whole thing go away with the stroke of a pen," she says (at press time, before an Interior secretary candidate had been confirmed). "That would be nice, wouldn't it?"
—Michael Anft

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