Military personnel have their identification checked after they enter the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 19. The Washington Navy Yard began returning to nearly normal operations three days after it was the scene of a mass shooting in which a gunman killed 12 people. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
The Washington Navy Yard reopened Thursday in an atmosphere of sadness for those lost in Monday’s shooting spree and controversy over the law enforcement response to it.
“It’s a tragic event and brings up a lot of good questions,” said one returning worker. “The hard questions have to be asked.”
A top union official for Washington Navy Yard police says he believes fewer lives would have been lost had the department not been understaffed during the attack that left the shooter and 12 of his victims dead. Meanwhile, U.S. Capitol Police have launched an investigation into whether its SWAT team was recalled from the Navy Yard gate while the horror was still unfolding.
Authorities say Navy contractor Aaron Alexis, 34, assembled a shotgun in a men’s room at the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters and killed 12 people at random before he was fatally shot in a gunfight with law enforcement.
Anthony Meely, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police Naval District Labor Committee, says a minimum of 11 Navy police officers were supposed to be working at the Navy Yard on Monday, but only seven were at the site. Because six had to continue manning gates, only one could immediately respond to the attack at Building 197, Meely said.
“People died because of management rights, the right to make a decision to save money,” Meely says.
Meely says once additional officers were able to respond, they had to run on foot because police cruisers had been dropped in recent years.
Meely says Navy Yard police are trained to respond to situations like the shooting and feels some of the victims, including a security guard, could have survived if the force was properly staffed.
Naval District Washington Police referred WUSA to Navy public affairs, which did not respond to staffing questions.
“At this time the NDW focus remains on healing as a Navy family and transitioning to normal operations at the Washington Navy Yard,” a Navy official said, asking that we not attribute the quote to an individual. “The secretary of the Navy has ordered a review of physical security and we will support it fully. Our biggest concern is our Navy family.”
The response by a Capitol Police SWAT team also is drawing scrutiny.
The team is based blocks from the Navy Yard, but a Capitol Police watch commander “wouldn’t let them go in and stop people from being slaughtered,” said one Metropolitan police officer, who declined to be identified due to the ongoing investigation.
“I take our response to this tragedy and our support to law enforcement partners very seriously,” Capitol Chief Kim Dine said in a statement. “While I am the chief of Police, at my core I am a police officer who feels strongly about our shared commitment and responsibilities. ... I place a high priority on law enforcement agency relationships and law enforcement coordination and communication.”
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus ordered reviews of Alexis’ four-year naval career to determine whether his conduct warranted his security clearance and fit-for-duty status. Mabus also ordered rapid assessments of the rules for when contractors are required to notify the Navy that they’ve reviewed an employee’s clearance and of the Navy’s broader security clearance system.
Building 197 remained off-limits Thursday, but employees elsewhere at the Navy Yard were reporting for work. Some said it was too soon for them to talk about the tragedy.
“It’s a little surreal, I guess,” Brooke Roberts, an engineer who works across the street from Building 197, told the Associated Press. “You don’t think this sort of thing can happen to you at your workplace, so you’re just not prepared for it.”
Contributing: John Bacon, USA TODAY; Sam Fellman, Navy Times