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A campaign sticker supporting President Trump is attached to a sign as a Capitol Police officer walks past on January 9.
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Police bias explains the Capitol riot

Law enforcement didn’t treat the Capitol rioters as a threat. The consequences were disastrous.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Five days ago, a mob stormed the US Capitol, the seat of American government and — supposedly — one of the most secure and heavily guarded buildings in the country.

Now lawmakers, security officials, and voters are trying to piece together what happened, and more details are emerging about the security failures that led to a siege not seen since 1812. And many are pointing to evidence of complicity by police officers who appeared to stand by or even assist rioters whose actions ended up causing a fellow officer’s death.

On Monday, Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman said “several” officers have been suspended and more than a dozen others are under investigation for their part in the insurrection. A congressional source told the Washington Post that investigators found messages showing support for Wednesday’s rally that led to the Capitol riots.

It was clear on Wednesday that Capitol Police and federal law enforcement were woefully unprepared for the size and violence of the crowd at the Capitol, despite repeated warnings in the days leading up to the event. One activist, for example, told the Washington Post she was so disturbed by threats on Parler and other social media sites that she called the FBI in late December, telling the agency, “they’re planning to kill members of Congress and they’re openly discussing bringing guns over state lines.”

A single police officer uses what looks like pepper spray, attempting to keep a violent mob of Trump supporters from entering the Capitol building.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
A pro-Trump mob breaks into the Capitol.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“I thought if that didn’t get their attention nothing would,” she said. But neither this warning nor anything else, apparently, convinced law enforcement to take the threats of violence seriously.

Then, when the mob actually entered the Capitol, federal backup was slow to arrive in part because there was no plan in place for coordination between federal forces and the Capitol Police. For example, there was no operations center established in the Pentagon to manage National Guard presence at the Capitol, leaving federal officials scrambling to call local leaders to coordinate a response, Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) said in a summary of a call with federal officials. That contributed to the long delay in getting federal forces to the Capitol.

Across law enforcement agencies, many are echoing the same message: that no one anticipated an attack of this kind on Congress and the Capitol, fomented and egged on by the president himself. Yet President Trump had been encouraging just such an attack for weeks, culminating in his speech Wednesday in which he urged supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” and “show strength” against “bad people.” The danger was in plain sight.

“You literally couldn’t have had more information,” R.P. Eddy, a counterterrorism expert and CEO of the intelligence firm Ergo, told Vox. But law enforcement agencies, starting with the Capitol Police, didn’t do what was necessary with that information: “The threat assessment, obviously, was a total failure.”

And the reason for that, he and others say, goes back to the inability of law enforcement officials to see Trump supporters — a group of mostly white Americans, some of them law enforcement officers themselves — as a real threat.

What happened at the Capitol was a colossal failure of planning

It’s only become clearer over the past six days that insurrectionists were planning their actions openly in the days leading up to Wednesday’s riot, and that many people had sounded the alarm. Posters in pro-Trump online forums were making plans to “encircle” Congress and “go after the traitors directly” and to “Bring handcuffs and zip ties to DC,” according to the Washington Post. And numerous watchdog groups and private citizens sent warnings to government officials about the threats.

“It’s not so much that the cops weren’t aware of it. It’s almost like they were willfully ignorant of the possibility of violence,” Marc Ginsberg, president of the Coalition for a Safer Web, who personally warned officials of his findings, told the Post. Tensions surrounding brutal police action against protesters this summer also left local and federal officials wary of a large police presence during the planned protest.

Law enforcement officials were preparing for a crowd in the “low thousands,” according to Crow’s call on Sunday with Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy — not the approximately 8,000 people who showed up. They were also prepared for “small, disparate violent events” like stabbings and fistfights, despite numerous social media posts about guns, ammunition, and kidnapping lawmakers. The Capitol Police also had not requested federal support in the days leading up to the riot, and both the Capitol and DC Metropolitan Police Departments had declined offers of additional National Guard backup, McCarthy said.

Then, when it was clear something far more serious than a few scuffles was taking place, the lack of planning made it difficult for Capitol Police to get reinforcements. During and after the riot on Wednesday, there were reports that the federal government had initially denied requests for National Guard backup by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and others, raising the concern that federal agencies still led by Trump might have been unwilling to help put down a riot started by Trump supporters.

Capitol Police detain rioters outside of the House chamber.
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Capitol Police officers receive medical treatment after clashes with Trump supporters.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

McCarthy, however, said the delay was not about politics but a lack of preparedness. After Bowser and Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund requested federal reinforcements shortly after 1:30 pm on Wednesday, federal officials worked to understand the situation for more than an hour, according to the call with Crow. Their efforts were hamstrung by the lack of an operations center in the Pentagon, forcing them to “manage the situation by tracking down previously unknown contacts of local law enforcement and making ad hoc calls in an office environment,” according to the call summary.

But whatever happened at the Defense Department, responsibility for Wednesday’s events really started with the Capitol Police, Eddy said. “Every event like this has a lead agency,” he explained: “one group who’s responsible, ultimately, for what’s going to happen.” In this case, it was the Capitol Police. They failed to prepare their officers — many of whom were in ordinary uniforms rather than helmets and riot gear — and they failed to prepare in advance for the federal reinforcements they would need, Eddy said. “They obviously failed to understand what the threat was going to be.”

Ultimately, federal forces arrived and law enforcement was able to clear the Capitol — but not before a Capitol Police officer and fours of the rioters were fatally injured. Another Capitol officer died by suicide on Saturday. And reports in recent days have made clear that the situation could have been even worse, with video showing rioters very close to invading the Senate chambers while senators were still inside.

In essence, the Capitol Police “were prepared for a flurry when instead what happened was an avalanche.”

The failure to prepare — and to respond — goes back to bias

Now the biggest question is why law enforcement failed so spectacularly to prepare for an event almost everyone else could see coming. The answer is about bias, according to Eddy.

Many of the rioters had a lot in common with the officials in charge of doing threat assessments in the days and weeks ahead of the riot, he explained: “They probably were very similar in race, probably very similar in income, probably very similar religious beliefs.” That includes a number of rioters who are law enforcement themselves. Departments around the country have suspended officers for their involvement in the riot.

The failure to anticipate the violence of January 6 was a “failure to imagine that folks who look like you, who probably think like you, are going to come do something that’s wildly different than what you’d want to do, and they’re going to try to kill you in the process,” Eddy said.

Capitol Police officers salute as the hearse carrying Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick passes by the Capitol building on January 10.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

And it wasn’t just about failure to prepare. While some Capitol Police officers were assaulted by rioters, others appeared to aid or at least do little to stop them, with one officer taking a selfie with a rioter (he has since been suspended, Rep. Tim Ryan confirmed on Monday) and others appearing to move aside barricades to let them get closer to the Capitol.

“There was some degree of complicitness, not among all of the police officers or law enforcement agents, but some,” Sabrina Karim, a professor of government at Cornell who studies global policing, told Vox. Some of that likely stems from similarities in ideology between some police and some of the rioters, with “blue lives matter” signs seen alongside Confederate flags and other racist imagery during the riot. “White supremacy has really crept into police forces,” Karim said.

Fixing those systemic problems will require big changes in police training and recruitment, she added. It’s also a reminder of the need to reimagine what police departments do and what they focus on. “On one hand, different groups of people are deemed a threat when maybe they’re not because they’re peacefully protesting, whereas a group of rioters full of domestic terrorists are not seen as a threat,” Karim said. Addressing that “is going to take transformational change.”

And with more threats looming around President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, that change is more urgent than ever. “The mob thinks they won,” Eddy said. The rioters who took selfies of themselves in the Capitol on Wednesday “are going to think they’re heroes, and they’re going to want to do it again.”

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