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The little-known police department that guards the White House

October 3, 2013, at 4:19 PM
 
U.D. officers are "the first line of defense between real threats and the president."

U.D. officers are "the first line of defense between real threats and the president." Photo: (REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Special agents of the U.S. Secret Service protect the president and his family. But responsibility for securing the White House itself falls to a branch of the service known as the Uniformed Division, consisting of 1,300-plus sworn police officers and technicians. While agents and their exploits are glamorized and the subject of fictional thrillers and films, the U.D. officers often have a more dangerous job.

They're the ones who establish and control the outer perimeters around the White House. They're in direct contact with the public; they're responsible for screening White House visitors and preventing harmful people from even getting close to the agents who surround the president.

Today, one of them was injured because a woman attempting to drive through a checkpoint near the White House tried to run over him. He put his body in front of a car that was, for all he knew, packed with explosives and headed toward the White House. (Of course, the car had nothing but a woman and child in it, and their motives are unknown, but he is trained to react to the situation as if the threat to the White House complex was real.)

U.D. officers get shot at, as people actually shooting weapons in the vicinity of the White House is not as rare as one might hope. They handle knife-wielding protesters, emotionally disturbed travelers who may or may not be dangerous, thrill-seeking fence-jumpers, and actual gate-crashers. They fend off helicopters and airplanes.

If someone tries to attack the complex with chemical or biological weapons, the U.D. will most likely detect it first, and its officers will most likely be injured trying to mitigate it. The U.D. also incorporates the service's "Hercules" counter-sniper teams, motorcade support unit, canine and EOD divisions, its legacy mission of guarding foreign embassy properties in the District, an Emergency Response Team at the White House, the perimeter security for the Naval Observatory, and a host of other special missions.

The U.D. used to be a branch of the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department. In 1930, the "White House Police" merged with the Treasury's Secret Service, and grew steadily. In 1950, an officer guarding Blair House was killed when Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate President Truman.

Many would-be police officers wouldn't normally be attracted to the U.D., and the pay and benefit schedules were one reason; they were tied to the District of Columbia's rules, and not to more generous federal rules. For years, the Secret Service tried to change this, succeeding in 2009. This allowed U.D. officers to finally be paid at a rate commensurate to the special nature of their jobs.

Yes, the name is awkward. (Imagine if fire marshals were part of a "Firefighters In Street Clothes Division.")

But no hyperbole: The U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division serves as the first line of defense between real threats and the president of the United States. If something goes down, most likely it will be they who are caught in the crossfire.

 

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