Behind the Strategic Failure of the Capitol Police

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The successful storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters on Wednesday represents perhaps the greatest policing failure in American history, a catastrophic collapse that may well end up costing one Capitol Police officer his life and the entire security leadership of the Capitol their jobs.

With both houses of Congress in a crucial joint session, the crowds that first approached the Capitol’s outer fence were no larger than the department deals with routinely. Yet within minutes, the outer fence lines had collapsed and officers were in full-blown retreat. The mob surged into the building and soon had almost free run of the place, rifling through the Parliamentarian’s office, taking mail from the hastily abandoned office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and carrying away or destroying all manner of objects. Rioters with Confederate flags strode past oil paintings of Civil War leaders. For the better part of the 3 p.m. hour Wednesday, overwhelmed officers seemed to evaporate, ceding the building to the invaders.

Through the afternoon Wednesday and through Thursday, current and former major city police chiefs traded puzzled and worried calls, all amazed at the assault on—and stunningly easy fall of—one of the world’s supposedly most secure buildings.

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.

“It was so disheartening,” says R. Gil Kerlikowske, the former chief of police in Seattle and Buffalo and former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I’m still pretty shocked.”

“They were woefully underprepared, and there will be a lot of deserved finger-pointing,” says a former New York Police Department executive, who spoke anonymously to criticize another department.

“USCP should know better, and has been dealing with crowds for decades,” said a former Capitol Hill security official.

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.

What went wrong? The day was a textbook example of cascading mistakes of intelligence, preparation, training and, most of all, police leadership. Though a full accounting still awaits, the basic failure at the center of the Capitol disaster also underscores, for many experts, the irrelevance of big security budgets and number of officers if an organization’s leadership fails when it counts.

Already on Thursday, heads were beginning to roll; the Capitol Police report ultimately to the heads of the House and Senate, through their respective sergeants-at-arms, and the House sergeant-at-arms Paul Irving resigned Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced he would fire Senate sergeant-at-arms Mike Stenger if he’s still in the job when Schumer becomes majority leader. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also called for the resignation of the Capitol Police chief, Steven Sund, a veteran of the D.C. police appointed to the Capitol force last year.

Sund, for his part, initially issued a statement defending his department, but appeared to know the trouble he was in: Pelosi said he never reached out to her, even more than 24 hours after yesterday’s sacking of the Capitol and her office. By dinnertime Thursday, he’d turned in a letter of resignation, too.

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 1996 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.

It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of warning about possible unrest Wednesday; beyond the Capitol grounds, the city of Washington, D.C., had activated massive protest protocols, blocking city streets with dump trucks, municipal buses and snow plows. The National Guard had been activated; D.C.’s Metropolitan Police were organized enough to arrest one of the leaders of the Proud Boys as he arrived in the city for the upcoming protests.

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.


Yet despite all of that, there appeared to be zero contingency plans, no meaningful reinforcements at hand as the pro-Trump mob approached, and none of the multiperimeter, defense-in-depth strategies one would expect to see in response to such a widely foreseen and publicized protest. There was no quick reaction force poised out of sight in buses around the corner, as one would normally expect to see at a potentially explosive protest situation. “Where were the guys in hats and bats?” asked one law enforcement leader, using the colloquial term for riot gear. (During anti-war protests during the Nixon era, 300 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were kept on reserve in the White House cafeteria in case protesters broke through the outer rings of security.)

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.

Dozens of Capitol Police were injured in the attack—some seriously, and one was on life support Thursday, according to union officials—but the storming and sacking of Capitol offices does not appear to have resulted in serious injury or the deaths of any Hill staff or members of Congress, but the apparent bullet holes visible Thursday in windows and walls make clear how narrowly further tragedy was averted. One protester was apparently shot and killed by Capitol Police; three others apparently died in medical incidents. Similarly, photos of members of the mob carrying zip ties raise the haunting possibility that a hostage nightmare could have unfolded inside the Capitol itself.

“There will be a lot of questions that need answering,” former Capitol Police chief Terrance Gainer told news radio station WTOP on Wednesday. “When we lost the steps, and then lost the upper deck on the east and west side, that was whopping trouble—that’s not supposed to happen.”

The scenes at the Capitol were all the more mystifying for those who have followed and watched the post-9/11 rise of the security state in Washington, D.C., a seemingly constant expanse of money at the expense of the capital’s traditional openness. Anyone who has lived and worked on Capitol Hill both before and after 9/11 has seen the nation’s capital tranformed from a relatively open seat of government into a security jungle of bollards, barriers, metal detectors, blast-proof windows, biological threat monitors and other security measures. Nowhere has that transformation been greater than around the White House and the U.S. Capitol. But Wednesday’s spectacle showed that money and equipment are no cure-all for shortcomings in organization and thinking.

Once the joint session of Congress was able to reconvene late Wednesday evening, Schumer called the day one of “infamy,” echoing the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It more accurately might be called a day of ignominy, one that will surely require a complete reshaping and rethinking of the force intended to protect the People’s House.



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