2,593 Days to Justice
She’s back. It took seven years, one month and six days. Then, against all odds, on January 11, Teresa Chambers of Dunkirk got the news she’d hoped for all along. Before the month is out, she’ll be reinstated to the job she loved and lost, U.S. Park Police Chief.
Back in November of 2003, Chambers was approaching her two-year anniversary in her “dream job,” chief of U.S. Park Police, the force that protects national monuments, parks and federal parkland in Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco.
Then in an interview with the Washington Post, Chambers worried aloud that inadequate staffing and funding in the post-9/11 world compromised the safety of the capital’s monuments, visitors and protectors.
A month later, Chambers was silenced and put on administrative leave. In July, she was fired. Her boss, the U.S. Department of the Interior, blamed her dismissal on “misconduct” stemming from the Washington Post interview.
Thus began a six-and-a-half-year series of appeals — to both the Federal Merit Protection Board and eventually the U.S. Court of Appeals — to prove the charges against her were false.
“The goal was always getting back my job,” Chambers tells Bay Weekly. “I was always hopeful that the right person would see my story and say this is nonsense.”
Chambers persevered with support and pro-bono legal council from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group protecting public employees. Without that support, “the legal costs,” Chambers says, “would have been prohibitive.”
As years passed, even she realized that reinstatement grew “less and less likely.” But she never gave up.
2008 brought the tenacious fighter some good news: first she was hired as chief of police for the Prince George’s County town of Riverdale Park. Then, on February 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals gave her a valentine, ruling that the Merit Systems Protection Board “applied an incorrect standard” by refusing her whistleblower protection.
From then on, “We were fairly confident,” Chambers says. “But I expected that it would take a while.”
That was January, 2009.
Vindication At Last
Two years later, Chambers’ Blackberry buzzed on her desk in the Riverdale Park Police office.
Chambers gasped when she opened the post by a blogger at CivilServiceChange.org and read her name with a link to the Merit System Protection Board document.
“Accordingly, we order the agency to … restore her effective July 10, 2004.”
“I thought, oh my God. I was stunned.”
Her restoration is a rare move; only one percent of appeals result in reinstatement.
For Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Chambers’ reinstatement is a double victory — “not only for Chief Chambers but also for thousands who believe that honesty is part of public service,” says her PEER attorney Paula Dinerstein.
Happily Ever After?
Chambers has taken a leave of absence from Riverdale Park. But she won’t resign until she’s certain the board’s ruling will not be challenged by the Department of the Interior. As soon as the legal path is clear, Chambers says she will return to lead the U.S. Park Police.
While the legal eagles work out logistics, Chambers reflects on her struggle.
“What has happened to me has bigger implications,” she says. “This isn’t all about me. There’s gotta be a greater good, and perhaps we’re starting to see it. I was naïve in believing that everything my government did was just and right. I forgot it is run by fallible human beings.
“I bleed red white and blue, and I was disillusioned. But my faith has been restored. I am going back to support my country.”