The New York Times
The Capitol Police Had One Mission. Now the Force Is in Crisis.
As old as the Capitol itself, the Capitol Police began in 1801 with the appointment of a single guard to oversee the move of Congress from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. His task, according to a court filing, was to “take as much care as possible with the property of the United States.” Over the years, the force — whose positions were once filled entirely through patronage — was professionalized and expanded, usually in the aftermath of crises like the shooting of five lawmakers by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1954, the killing by a gunman of two officers inside an entrance to the building in 1998, or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Today, it is in crisis once again, with calls for a full investigation into what lawmakers have called a “severe systemic failure” that allowed an angry mob of Trump loyalists to storm the Capitol last week, an episode that left five people dead, including one Capitol Police officer. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times Three officers have been suspended and 17 more are under investigation, according to a senior congressional aide. The department is accustomed to being shielded from the type of public disclosure that is routine for ordinary police agencies. But since last week’s rampage, the department’s chief and two other top security officials have resigned, and its congressional overseers have pressed for answers. On Wednesday, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, complained that the agency was a “black box.” “We’re having a hell of a time getting information from Capitol Police leadership,” said Ryan, who chairs the House committee that oversees the department’s budget. “We fund the Capitol Police. Congress funds the Capitol Police through the Appropriations Committee. We deserve to know and understand what the hell is going on.” Operating under the protective wing of Congress, the Capitol Police has more than 2,000 officers to defend 2 square miles and a half-billion-dollar budget — bigger than those that fund the police departments in Atlanta and Detroit. But it has long suffered from the same troubles that afflict many other police forces: claims of an old boys’ network, glass ceilings, racial bias and retaliation. There have been complaints, too, of lax discipline and of promotions for white commanders who faced misconduct allegations, but harsh treatment for women and Black officers. A handful of high-profile incidents in recent years — locking down the Capitol but failing to inform Congress; ordering a nearby tactical team not to respond when a gunman opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard; the fatal shooting of a Black woman who made a U-turn at a checkpoint — have raised questions about the department’s procedures and operational paralysis. Many who are familiar with the department now suggest that these long-standing problems contributed to how easily its officers were overrun last Wednesday. “Why was I not surprised?” said Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, the lead plaintiff in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the department that has languished for years, while she and a handful of other retired Black officers have staged regular demonstrations on Capitol Hill. “Because I’m going back to the environment in which I worked in all those years.” While many of the law enforcement agencies that rushed to the scene on Jan. 6 have offered public briefings and comprehensive timelines of what happened, the department that is sworn to protect the building and its occupants has been the quietest. Capitol Police officials have not responded to numerous requests for comment, nor has anyone in the department addressed the widely circulated videos that appear to show some officers allowing the rioters to enter the building, or treating them in a sympathetic manner, while their colleagues were being assaulted with fire extinguishers, flagpoles and hockey sticks. The officers who have been suspended include one who took selfies with members of the crowd and another who put on a “Make America Great Again” hat and directed rioters into the Capitol, according to Ryan. Law enforcement experts noted the apparent absence of commanders and supervisors as the mob breached the building. A memo from members of the department’s Capitol Division, written after last week’s rampage, praised Inspector Thomas M. Loyd, the division commander, for fighting “shoulder to shoulder” with the rank and file, while implicitly criticizing the rest of the leadership. Loyd “did not retreat inside the building to attempt to ‘lead’ from his office,” said the memo, a copy of which was provided by a retired officer. “He did not stay back, away from the line, to avoid any physical conflict, but rather pulled officers off the line and took their place so they could receive medical attention.” In an interview, Jim Konczos, a former head of the officers’ union, said the department suffered from a long-standing failure to hold the upper brass accountable for alleged misdeeds, calling it a “morale killer.” In one instance, a commander who had an affair with a married subordinate was demoted one rank and offered a settlement that would have preserved his earlier, higher pay, according to a decision by the Office of Compliance. At the time, he was leading negotiations on the union contract. In another, an officer assigned to protect high-ranking lawmakers racked up two charges of drunken driving, including one case in which his car struck a Maryland State Police trooper’s unmarked cruiser. The officer continued to climb the ranks, despite an internal investigation for overtime fraud. “You get to the point where you just get so disgusted with everything — you go to the chief, go to the sergeant-at-arms, and nobody cares,” Konczos said. The responsibilities of the Capitol Police are vastly different from those of ordinary police departments. The force protects the Capitol grounds, members of Congress and staff, and it screens millions of visitors a year. Officers are expected to recognize the 535 lawmakers and to avoid offending them. The delicacy of that task was on full display in 1983, when a House inquiry found that the Capitol Police had botched a drug investigation by creating “the impression that the investigation may have been terminated to protect members” — while noting that, to be sure, no members had been implicated. Before last week’s televised scenes of officers attacked and outnumbered, the job of a Capitol Police officer was considered relatively safe and prestigious. The pay, starting at $64,000, is higher than at other departments in the Washington metro area, and the job offers a close-up view of dignitaries and heads of state. Officers occasionally make arrests for minor crimes like smoking marijuana outside Union Station, according to a report by a watchdog group that complained of “mission creep.” “As a rule, you’re not working robberies and homicides and burglaries and disorderly conduct,” said Terry Gainer, who had a long career in other police departments before joining the Capitol Police, where he served as the chief and then, later, as the Senate sergeant-at-arms. For decades, providing security for “the People’s House” has meant facing criticism for being too intrusive or, just as often, too lax. The department is overseen by a board that includes the sergeants-at-arms from each chamber, who must answer to their respective majorities and who often take politics into account, former officials said, resulting in a hamstrung force that is rarely able to take swift unilateral action. “When things started unfolding in an emergency, you want a chief who’s empowered by the sergeant-at-arms to do what needs to be done in an emergency, without playing ‘Mother, May I,’” Gainer said. “Sometimes you had to be prepared to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.” Steven Sund — who resigned his post as chief of the department after last week’s rampage — told The Washington Post that he had asked the sergeants-at-arms for permission to put the National Guard on standby last week, in anticipation of huge, possibly violent, crowds. But the sergeants-at-arms refused, he said, citing concerns about “optics.” The sergeants-at-arms both resigned after last week’s breach; they have not responded to requests for comment. Though police departments across the country can be notoriously opaque, they routinely release basic information about crime, complaints about misconduct and the racial and gender makeup of the force. The Capitol Police does not. And its officers do not wear body cameras, in part out of concerns over lawmakers’ privacy. A bill that would have required the department to report crime statistics and strengthen its disciplinary process was introduced last summer by Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the committee that oversees the department. The bill went nowhere. Allegations of gender discrimination have dogged the department for years. In lawsuits, female officers have described a culture of sexual harassment, with commanders rarely punished for lewd remarks or for sleeping with subordinates. At the same time, they say, women have been disciplined harshly for more minor offenses. In one instance, a sergeant was demoted and suspended after she leaked reports that a fellow officer had left a gun in a restroom at the Capitol, according to court papers, while little happened to that officer. The department has also faced repeated complaints of racism. A lawsuit filed in 2001 by more than 250 Black officers, including Blackmon-Malloy, remains unresolved, and current and former officers say the problems persist. There are no Black men on the force with a rank higher than captain. At the same time, many of the officers who have been lauded for heroism, including the two officers who helped stop a shooting in 2017 at a congressional baseball practice, have been Black. So is Eugene Goodman, the officer who was captured on video running up the stairs in the Capitol last week, apparently luring rioters away from the Senate. In 2015, an email from the department’s intelligence office before the Million Man March warned of potential “fireworks,” citing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and “rabble-rousing rhetoric” by the organizer, Louis Farrakhan. A year later, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is Black, said he had attracted suspicion from the Capitol Police on more than one occasion. The new acting chief, Yogananda Pittman, is both the first African American and the first woman to lead the department. After congressional leaders urged the department to be more communicative, she issued a very brief statement. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company