Capitol Police, now under fire, have a history of secrecy

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·7-min read

The assault and occupation of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters has shone a harsh light on the failings of a security force that has made a habit of hiding from publicity.

A day after a mob of Trump supporters conducted an assault on the Capitol, the mayor of Washington, D.C., her police chief, and congressional and Pentagon leaders held press conferences to discuss the previous day’s events. But the organization at the center of Wednesday’s disastrous security failure was conspicuous by its absence.

The Capitol Police — whose sole mission is to protect Congress, including its members, visitors and facilities, “so it can fulfill its constitutional and legislative responsibilities in a safe, secure and open environment” — and its chief, Steven Sund, held no press conferences. Their only public utterance was a press release from Sund that hailed the valor of the police as they ceded control of the Capitol to the pro-Trump mob.

The release made no effort to explain how the debacle was allowed to occur, other than to indicate that Sund was expecting nothing more than “First Amendment activities” on the part of the crowd that had come to Washington to support the president in his attempts to cling to power.

That statement represented Sund’s last official remarks as the chief of the Capitol Police, who are controlled by Congress. Within hours of its release, and facing a call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he quit, Sund submitted his resignation, effective Jan. 16, the Associated Press reported.

Rioters clash with police
Rioters trying to enter the Capitol through the front doors on Wednesday clash with police. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But as Sund announced his intention to step down, the recriminations and finger-pointing over responsibility for Wednesday’s security failures ramped up.

In the days leading up to the assault, Trump supporters had filled online forums with predictions of violence when they descended in their thousands on the nation’s capital. They called on each other to bring weapons to the capital, and there were indications that an assault on the Capitol was on the agenda.

Nonetheless, the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police appeared blindsided by what confronted them on Wednesday: a pro-Trump mob intending to force its way into the Capitol itself to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. “There was no intelligence that suggests there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol,” D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said Thursday.

An FBI spokesperson declined to answer questions from Yahoo News about what information the bureau had in advance of the assault and what it shared with the Capitol Police. But even having failed to prepare ahead of the mob’s march to the Capitol, the Capitol Police “had at least 40 minutes” to get more help as the mob walked in their direction, former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayem tweeted.

By the time the Capitol Police requested support from the D.C. Police at about 1 p.m., “things were already pretty bad,” Contee said.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Widely shared video clips on social media show Capitol Police officers first offering little resistance as the mob swarmed past their flimsy barriers, then retreating into the building ahead of the mob without firing a shot, before herding terrified members of Congress and their staffers into safe rooms and barricading the doors to keep the rioters out.

Only when the mob had breached the Capitol building itself did a Capitol Police officer shoot one of the rioters as she attempted to break through an internal door that the police had barricaded close to the House chamber. The woman, identified as Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, later died of her wounds. The D.C. Police will investigate the shooting, according to Contee.

A Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, died after he was beaten with a fire extinguisher while battling pro-Trump rioters, according to the New York Times. “The FBI and Metropolitan Police Department will jointly investigate the case and the Department of Justice will spare no resources in investigating and holding accountable those responsible,” acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said in a statement Friday morning.

But despite what was widely perceived as a disastrous failure to do their basic mission of protecting the Capitol, Sund’s statement said his officers “responded valiantly” to the assault, a claim that seemed at odds with much of the visual evidence.

A Capitol Police officer shoots pepper spray at a protester
A Capitol Police officer shoots pepper spray at a protester attempting to enter the Capitol. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Reuters)

In some instances, Capitol Police officers, who are all armed, appeared to be outnumbered and running away from the mob. In others, they appeared to be bizarrely solicitous toward the rioters: moving barriers aside for them to storm the Capitol, taking selfies with them and, in one case, even helping one walk back down the Capitol steps.

A Capitol Police spokesperson neither answered her phone nor responded to a list of emailed questions from Yahoo News.

The lack of public accountability is par for the course when it comes to the Capitol Police, according to Daniel Schuman, who has spent two years investigating the force for Demand Progress. “The Capitol Police refuse to talk,” he said. “They literally run away from us, they’re incredibly rude.” The Capitol Police are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

With more than 2,000 sworn officers, the Capitol Police “would be the 11th- or 12th-largest municipal police force” in the country, Schuman said. The force says it has a budget of about $460 million. However, there has been “roiling discontent” within the rank and file for several years over issues of pay and poor management, Schuman said.

But the force also has an intelligence unit whose mission is to monitor threats to members of Congress and to the Capitol, according to Schuman. “Why didn’t they know this was coming?” he said regarding Wednesday’s events, in which the mob of Trump supporters assaulted the Capitol and the surrounding area in what D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called an act of “textbook terrorism.”

Schuman is not the only one asking that question.

Rioters enter the Senate Chamber
Rioters entering the Senate Chamber. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By late Wednesday afternoon police had seized “approximately five weapons,” including long guns and handguns, according to Contee. One suspect was arrested with a semiautomatic rifle and a cooler full of 11 Molotov cocktails. Another was photographed carrying a handful of zip-tie plastic handcuffs, an indication that at least some of those who assaulted the Capitol were prepared to take hostages. Police also found bombs at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, according to the FBI.

It’s unclear why the Capitol Police officers, who are armed, chose not to use lethal force as the Trump supporters broke through the barricades and chased the police into the building. Schuman said they do not lack for training opportunities, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. “They literally have a shooting range within the Rayburn [House Office] Building,” he said.

Many observers noted the contrast between the Capitol Police’s treatment of those who conducted a violent assault on the Capitol and their harsher behavior in the recent past toward more peaceful protesters.

The result was a staggering self-inflicted strategic wound for the United States in the eyes of the world — “a horrible and shameful day,” in the words of Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy — made all the more painful by the fact that it was so avoidable. “This could have been prevented if properly anticipated,” Jeh Johnson, a former secretary of homeland security, told NPR on Friday.

Those who assaulted the symbol of American democracy — gleefully taking photographs of each other and posting them online as they did so — may not have long to enjoy their success, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray. The bureau has deployed its “full investigative resources” to “aggressively” hunt down those responsible, he said in a statement Thursday.

“Make no mistake,” Wray said. “With our partners, we will hold accountable those who participated in yesterday’s siege.”

Caitlin Dickson contributed reporting to this story.

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