The U.S. Capitol Police force, which uses a roster fit for a mid-sized city to defend a compact 270-acre campus, is under a type of scrutiny it has rarely seen in two centuries of existence.
Outmatched officers failed to prevent a mob of President Donald Trump supporters from invading the Capitol on Wednesday, sending lawmakers fleeing for safety. The fallout has been swift, with Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund saying he’ll resign effective Jan. 16. House Sergeant at Arms, Paul Irving, who plays a role in overseeing the police, also quit.
But even as the force defended its actions as heroic, lawmakers are calling for investigations and demanding answers for the force’s failure.
“What the hell?” tweeted Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, after Wednesday’s violence. She said Sund had assured her days earlier that “the terrorists would not be allowed on the plaza and Capitol secured” and called for an investigation.
The storming of the Capitol brought unusual focus on a department known locally for scanning visitors to the building and for enforcing traffic laws nearby streets. At the same time, the officers protect Congress, their staff and visitors.
One Capitol Police officer died from injuries sustained during Wednesday’s attack on the building, according to Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, said she plans to help lead an inquiry into the Capitol Police’s response to the Trump supporters who occupied and vandalized the building.
“I have very serious concerns about the security response to this mob,” Lofgren told reporters. “We can’t allow terrorists to come in and invade the Capitol of the United States. It’s completely unacceptable. We’ve got to prevent that from happening again.”
The storming of the Capitol also left rank and file members of the force “frustrated and demoralized by the lack of leadership,” the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee said in a news release reported by Politico.
“Lack of planning led to the greatest breach of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812,” police union Chairman Gus Papathanasiou said in the news release, referring to British forces burning the building in 1814.
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police, didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.
The force is responsible for maintaining order while protecting the Capitol, which sits in a 58-acre park at one end of Washington’s Mall. The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial can be seen in the distance from the Capitol’s west side, where Democrat Joe Biden is to be inaugurated on Jan. 20.
Most visitors to lawmakers or to the Capitol encounter Capitol Police officers at checkpoints that include metal detectors at entrances to House and Senate office buildings. Each year the Capitol is visited by 3 million to 5 million people from around the world.
The force can figure prominently in reining in demonstrations, such as the July 2017 arrest of the Reverend Raphael Warnock as he was singing and praying during a protest in a Senate office building. Warnock was elected to the Senate this week from Georgia.
But its activities often are cloaked in secrecy, said David Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress who spent two years studying the Capitol Police.
“Most police forces have transparency and accountability mechanisms. The Capitol Police doesn’t operate that way,” Schuman said in an interview.
The force isn’t required by law to respond to public information requests, Schuman said in a June letter to Congress. It doesn’t publish an annual report on its activities, nor does it publish reports from its oversight body, the Capitol Police Board, or its Inspector General, Schuman said in the letter.
Arrest statistics over two years show that half the force’s incidents, or 348, were traffic-related infractions, and another 14%, or 106, were drug-related, according to the study. About one in eight arrests took place within a block of Union Station, a train depot more than half a mile from the Capitol.
The force has seen its budget expand fourfold, from $119 million annually to $516 million, over the past 25 years. It has about 2,450 employees including around 2,000 officers, and absorbs one-tenth of Congress’s administrative budget, according to an analysis by Demand Progress.
The size of the Capitol Police’s budget is comparable to that of the city of San Antonio, Texas, with a population of 1.5 million. The workforce size eclipses that of major city departments like New Orleans and Miami, according to Demand Progress’s study.
For all that, the Capitol Police were caught short on Wednesday.
“They didn’t have enough resources to deal with any potential problems. Why they didn’t call for extra help, have them standing by, I have no idea,” said Charles Ramsey, former police chief of Washington, D.C.
He noted that the Capitol Police has mutual aid agreements with the D.C. metropolitan police and law enforcement in Maryland. Historically, the Capitol Police has communicated effectively with those other organizations.
“They’ve always been well-trained, well-run, well-led,” Ramsey said in an interview. “I don’t know what the hell happened.”
Lofgren said she asked about the line of command and coordination with the National Guard ahead of the Wednesday riot.
“We were told that was all in place, and there was no doubt that they were completely able to keep us secure in the Capitol,” Lofgren said. “That was not correct. Not only were they not prepared, but what they told me about the National Guard was just not true. The guard was not even activated.”
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