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The catastrophic police failure at the US Capitol, explained

Police failed to stop a mob from storming the halls of Congress. Lawmakers want to know why.

Pro-Trump rioters used metal bars and tear gas to over take Capitol Police and breach the building.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Capitol Police are supposed to protect Congress.

As a 2,000-member department controlled by the federal government, they are tasked with keeping the Capitol building and the people inside it safe from any threats.

But on Wednesday, Americans watched in horror as a mob of Trump supporters streamed into the building, forcing Congress to evacuate and leaving a woman dead. And now everyone from ordinary Americans to members of Congress is asking the same question: How did the police let this happen?

For weeks, President Trump and his supporters had been publicly voicing plans for a “wild” protest in Washington on January 6. And ahead of Wednesday, Capitol Police had told members of Congress that they had a plan for enhanced security. In late December, Capitol Police spokesperson Eva Malecki told Roll Call that the department “has comprehensive security plans in place and we continuously monitor and assess new and emerging threats.”

But as Trump supporters smashed windows and stormed the Capitol, it soon became clear the building’s police force was severely outmatched. Save for a midnight shift change, the entire Capitol Police force — around 1,500 officers — was on duty Wednesday, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee, the panel with oversight over Capitol Police, told Vox in a Thursday interview. Additionally, 1,000 DC police officers were on duty near the Capitol area Wednesday.

“Look, I’m going to be as critical as anyone else for the blunder and the epic fail” of police leadership, Ryan told Vox. “But make no mistake, these were violent people who were swinging lead pipes at the cops. These were people armed with pepper spray, spraying at cops.”

In a statement on Thursday, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said more than 50 Capitol Police and DC Metropolitan police had sustained injuries — some of them serious. Ryan said 15 officers were hospitalized and one is in critical condition.

One video in the Capitol filmed by HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic showed a single police officer attempting to hold off intruders walking freely through the Capitol complex. At one point, the officer picked up what appeared to be a stick or a thin baton to ward them off. Soon after, he ran from the crowd, shouting into his walkie-talkie for backup.

Sund said in his statement that the department would investigate its response to the riot. But the statement also said Capitol officers “and our law enforcement partners responded valiantly when faced with thousands of individuals involved in violent riotous actions.”

However, some lawmakers were furious that the nation’s Capitol could be so easily invaded. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called for Sund’s resignation on Thursday, adding that the chief hadn’t yet called her to discuss the security breach at the Capitol.

“There was a failure of leadership with the Capitol Police,” Pelosi said. “He hasn’t even called us since this happened.”

Ryan added he had been told that the DC National Guard, DC Metro police, and SWAT teams would all be engaged in preparation for the day. (The Capitol Police are separate from the DC police that patrol the rest of the city.)

In reality, there were videos of police standing by or reacting slowly as Trump supporters got closer to the Capitol. It was a stark contrast to the show of force from police during this summer’s protests against police brutality in the wake of the George Floyd killing — or even Capitol Police arresting peaceful protesters with disabilities during a 2017 health care bill negotiation on the Hill.

The answers for what went wrong are likely to be the subject of investigation in the weeks and months to come. Ryan told reporters flatly that he expected people to be fired over the incident.

A single police officer uses what looks like pepper spray to keep a violent mob of Trump supporters from entering the Capitol building.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Trump supporters enter the Capitol.
Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“It’s pretty clear there’s a number of people who are going to be without employment very, very soon,” Ryan said. “This is an embarrassment both on behalf of the mob, the president ... and the attempted coup — but also the lack of professional planning and dealing with what we knew was going to occur. There was a strategic breakdown, for sure. You can bet your ass we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

Lawmakers echoed the shock of many Americans at the apparent collapse of law enforcement authority over what is usually one of the country’s most heavily guarded buildings. “I cannot believe this is happening in the US Capitol,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) told reporters on Wednesday, speaking from a secure and undisclosed location where she and other senators were being kept safe.

Duckworth added she had also been told there would be enhanced security for the election certification vote.

“We were told there would be increased security and we’d have extra time to get to a place,” she said.

Now the question before Congress and America is not just what went wrong on Wednesday, but how to prevent it from happening again.

The failures started long before Wednesday

Far from a surprise, the insurrection on Wednesday had been in the works for a long time, with support from the president himself. On December 19, he tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” His supporters took the name Wild Protest, as ProPublica reports, and began publicly planning an occupation. “We came up with the idea to occupy just outside the CAPITOL on Jan 6th,” movement leaders wrote on December 23.

Meanwhile, DC officials had begun tracking incoming bus reservations in the days leading up to Wednesday and realized “this could be a stadium-sized crowd,” one official told the Washington Post. On Monday, Mayor Muriel Bowser began warning DC residents to stay away from downtown, the Post reported.

But despite clear warning signs from Trump and his supporters — and the fact that city officials were on high alert — Capitol Police did not prepare for the size or violence of the crowd. Relaying conversations he’d had with police officials, Rep. Ryan told reporters the threat assessment done by law enforcement seriously underestimated the potential threat.

“Initially, it was that there wasn’t going to be any kind of violence anticipated,” Ryan said. “First Amendment protests, pretty vanilla, maybe some dust-ups ... but absolutely nothing like this.”

Police set up only low barriers around the perimeter of the building and were wearing ordinary uniforms instead of riot gear, the Post noted. As many pointed out, this was in stark contrast to the law enforcement response to Black Lives Matter protests this summer, when members of the National Guard formed an intimidating phalanx outside the Lincoln Memorial, clad in military-style gear.

“Being candid, I think if there were Black people out there, I think there would’ve been a different response in what they did,” Ryan told reporters Thursday.

Police use tear gas around the Capitol building in an attempt to control the violent mob of Trump supporters.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Members of the DC National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial monitoring Black Lives Matter demonstrators during a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

And while police are trained to set up multiple layers of barriers far from any potential target, the Post reported, Capitol officers apparently did not try to stop rioters until they were actually on the Capitol steps.

From there, police were unable to prevent rioters from entering the building — or, in some cases, did not even try. One officer appeared to take a selfie with a Trump supporter as the mob roamed the building.

And even after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, making abundantly clear the seriousness of the moment, police appeared to let many of them simply leave of their own accord rather than making arrests. That’s in part because there simply weren’t enough personnel on hand to both ensure the safety of members of Congress and make arrests, officials told the Post. Around 52 people had been arrested as of Thursday morning, out of a crowd of thousands that gathered around the Capitol. (The exact number of rioters who entered the Capitol is unclear.)

By contrast, more than 150 people were arrested by Capitol Police after demonstrations against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018. And last summer, more than 400 people were arrested over the course of a few days in connection with protests against police violence.

In 2018, Capitol Police arrested more than 100 protesters after they occupied the steps of the east side of the US Capitol to demonstrate against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In all, officials described an unprecedented failure to plan for and respond to what should have been an entirely predictable event: angry Trump supporters, stoked by the president’s tweets and his speech on Wednesday urging them to “walk down to the Capitol,” descending on the seat of Congress to incite mayhem. The fact that they succeeded — resulting in the death of one woman at the Capitol and reportedly three others in the course of the riot — will be the subject of questions and investigations for months to come.

Now lawmakers and Americans want answers

It’s not clear why Capitol Police were so unprepared for Wednesday’s obvious threat. The department has not responded to requests for comment from Vox or the Washington Post. In his statement on Thursday, Sund said that the department “had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities. But make no mistake — these mass riots were not First Amendment activities.”

Indeed, some speculate that despite repeated public warnings, law enforcement just couldn’t believe Trump supporters would really storm the Capitol. “Would you imagine people were going to break into the Capitol and go into the chambers?” David Carter, director of the Intelligence Program at Michigan State University, remarked to ProPublica. “That failure of imagination sometimes makes us drop the ball.”

Others say that law enforcement might have been trying to use a lighter touch after criticisms of the way the summer’s protests were handled. “I’m pretty sure the Capitol Police were trying to do something a little softer, as we try to welcome protesters up there, but it got out of hand,” Terrance Gainer, former chief of the Capitol Police, said on CNN Thursday.

And while there were a few National Guard troops posted around the city, DC officials had reportedly asked them to maintain a limited presence, not wanting a repeat of the events of the summer, like the gassing of protesters in Lafayette Square, according to the Post.

Rioters who breached the Capitol building posed for photographs with stolen property.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Trump supporters in front of the US Capitol building.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

However, some suggest that perhaps Capitol Police also had little interest in stopping the rioters, some of whom carried pro-police “thin blue line” flags. “The police might have been complicit because many sympathize with President Trump’s cause, or because many of the insurrectionists are the same people that support the ‘blue lives matter’ counter-movement,” Sabrina Karim, a professor of government at Cornell who studies security, said in a statement to media on Wednesday’s events. “They have been supportive of the police, and thus arresting ‘allies’ may not be in the larger interests of the police.”

And while police might have been trying a “softer” approach, it’s impossible to ignore the differences in law enforcement response with protests earlier this year.

On Wednesday, a group of mostly white Trump supporters were allowed to take selfies and roam freely in the Capitol because they falsely believed the election was rigged. This summer, a diverse group of protesters were subject to military-style control when they gathered to demonstrate against police brutality. Especially glaring is the contrast between the intentions of the two groups.

“There was zero intelligence that the Black Lives Matter protesters were going to ‘storm the capitol,’” Washington Attorney General Karl Racine said on CNN Wednesday. “Juxtapose that with what we saw today, with hate groups, militia and other groups that have no respect for the rule of law go into the capitol. ... That dichotomy is shocking.”

And as lawmakers investigate what went wrong on Wednesday — and why — the events of the day raise serious questions about the security of the Capitol not just now but in the future, and about what happens the next time Trump decides to whip supporters into a frenzy. With President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration coming up on January 20, those concerns couldn’t be more urgent.

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