Behind the Strategic Failure of the Capitol Police

“It wasn’t just the building that had them horrified. In the past two decades, the Capitol Police has grown into one of the largest, best-funded and most single-focus police departments in the country, with a budget of more than $460 million and around 2,000 sworn officers to guard just 2 square miles of the capital. (By comparison, that’s half the size of the entire police force for Washington, D.C.)”

“Appalled experts, watching the crisis unfold, asked themselves: Where was the protective intelligence? Where was the quick reaction force? Where were the long guns? Where were the helmets and batons? Where were the tall, secure fences that normally ring the Capitol during high-profile protests? And perhaps most important: Where was the strategy? Word on Thursday evening that the Capitol Police evidently twice turned down offers of reinforcements only deepened the sense of disbelief.”

“Minute by minute, individual officers sometimes acted bravely, but hour by hour, Wednesday’s events demonstrated a top-to-bottom failure by a key federal law-enforcement agency. The crisis can’t even be called a failure of imagination, as 9/11 is sometimes seen, because in many ways the idea that the pro-Trump mob might march on the Capitol to disrupt the proceedings inside seemed all but obvious. Nor was this an incident that just slipped under the radar. The joint session inside was the single biggest news event in the United States that day, and the rioters had been planning disruptive protest for weeks, in the open.”

“The Capitol Police, which until the 1990s had perennially struggled for resources—more a team of security guards than an elite force—has undergone a sea change since four Capitol-altering events: The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a 1998 attempt by a gunman to storm the House whip’s office, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent spate of anthrax-laced letters targeting Capitol Hill leaders. Until those events, most members of Congress saw little value in its police force beyond, as one police leader told me, “Where’s my parking space, and can I get a better one?”
The Capitol Police, as much as any federal law enforcement agency, has been the huge beneficiary of the boom in government security spending, nearly tripling in size in the past quarter century—in no small part because it’s the agency in charge of protecting those who appropriate the money in the first place. It has also consolidated its control of Capitol Hill, merging in 2009 with the previously separate Library of Congress police.

Today, the Capitol Police boasts advanced resources equal to the largest and best police departments in the country, including a bomb squad, intelligence unit, hazmat units and specialized dignitary protection agents, as well as crowd control and riot gear and access to an arsenal of weapons that would impress many small armies. Its officers are well-wired with other local and regional police departments and participate in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Plus it has the entire federal government and numerous local and regional D.C. police departments to call upon for help when needed.

And, at its core, its whole job is to protect about 270 acres, a land mass less than a third the size of New York’s Central Park—including, and especially, the 58-acre Capitol and grounds itself. That unusual balance—immense resources and an extremely specific zone to protect—makes its colossal failure Wednesday so much more stunning to law enforcement experts.”

“The Capitol Police should, in theory, have had the crowd-control skills to meet the moment. It’s an agency uniquely experienced in handling First Amendment protests and protesters—on issues as varied as abortion rights, health care or anti-war activists. After run-of-the-mill traffic offenses, protest-related arrests account for the majority of the department’s total arrests; it probably arrests and confronts more protesters than any other police department in the country. Nor are the Capitol Police a stranger to securing high-profile events, from presidential State of the Union addresses to the inauguration set for later this month on the very scaffolding and stands that the Trump mob rampaged over Wednesday.”

“The failure to plan meant that the die was cast as soon as the Trump mob began walking to the Capitol. In the military, the saying goes “prior planning prevents piss-poor performance,” and the Capitol Police lost the battle for Congress on Wednesday hundreds of yards away from its famous steps—as soon as the mob pushed over and past the first low metal fence far down on the west grounds of the approach to the building.
But from there, the department continued to fail, collapsing in a way familiar to any 19th-century general watching an army in retreat. At every turn, officers seemed at a loss to respond, indicating both training lapses and catastrophic leadership failures. There were failures at the start: A video, with unclear context, circulated on social media of Capitol Police even opening and removing barricades to allow the rioters close to the Capitol. There were failures as it unfolded: Other videos showed officers posing for selfies with rioters inside occupied Capitol office buildings. And there were failures as the crisis wound down: An officer even held a woman’s hand as she was escorted out of the building and down the steps. By late afternoon, police had made fewer arrests (13) in the storming of the U.S. Capitol than are typically made at the New York Giants stadium during a home game (21).

It took more than five hours for control to be reestablished, and only after thousands more law enforcement and military resources were rushed to the Capitol from across the city and neighboring states—resources desperately requested from the Pentagon and the FBI, among others, that Capitol Police leaders had turned down in the days and hours ahead of the mob’s arrival.”