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September 18, 2021

News West

West Coast News Network

Capitol’s shocking fall to Trump-incited mob reflects array of security failures, infuriating Congress

In images posted on social media and beamed around the world Wednesday, small clusters of U.S. Capitol Police officers retreated, fell away from violent assaults or simply moved aside as a large mob descended on the seat of American legislative power.

Officers at a U.S. Capitol perimeter fence tried to hold their line but failed as intruders overturned the barrier. Officers at another gate, seemingly overwhelmed, appeared to walk off as the intruders passed by. Another lone officer tried to hold back an advancing group before fleeing through the halls of Congress.

In many cases, the officers were in normal uniform. Nowhere were there the skirmish lines of officers in riot gear seen during other recent events, including Black Lives Matter protests.

The stunning collapse of national security left many of the nation’s leaders cowering behind benches and fearing for their lives. But by Thursday, much of their shock had been supplanted by anger — with leading lawmakers demanding resignations from the Capitol’s top security officials and calling for broad investigations into the array of tactical failures under their watch.

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund announced he would step down on Jan. 16, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called for his resignation. Pelosi also announced the resignation of House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he “requested and received” the resignation of Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger.

Some lawmakers also cast blame higher, blaming President Trump directly for inciting the mob. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), chair of the House Administration Committee, suggested Trump and other administration officials may have contributed to the chaos as well by failing to quickly approve D.C. National Guard deployment.

“When it was necessary to get the guard deployed, the Department of Defense wouldn’t do it, and it was necessary for the bipartisan leadership in Congress and also the vice president to intervene to get that done,” Lofgren said Thursday. “By then we had rioters inside the Capitol.”

Lofgren said the hesitation came despite assurances from Sund earlier in the week that the Capitol would be secure with the National Guard standing by.

“We were told that was all in place, that there was no doubt they were able to keep us secure in the Capitol,” Lofgren said. “That was not correct.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said she had a nearly hourlong conversation with Sund days before, in which he assured her that security was not an issue and that the Capitol would be safe from the white supremacist groups that had said they would be gathering.

“He assured me that they had it under control,” Waters said. “I am, just as most Americans, absolutely outraged by the fact that they were able to basically breach what was supposed to be one of the most well-secured buildings in the whole country.”

Lawmakers said there would be a deep investigation into the circumstances, including how the Capitol Police were so understaffed despite the fact that Trump backers and extremists had been telegraphing their intention to disrupt Wednesday’s Capitol proceedings for days.

The intruders stormed the Capitol as Congress was debating and signing off on states’ electoral votes affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who heads a subcommittee that oversees Capitol Police, said he was told by Capitol law enforcement that its expectations for the day were “pretty vanilla” — with officials suggesting there may be “some dust-ups” or violations of the D.C. ban on guns, but nothing like what ultimately transpired.

“I’m livid about the whole thing,” Ryan said. “We were told no one was going to be anywhere close to the Capitol in the protests, and next thing you know, you turn on the TV and they’re swinging from the Capitol with flags.”

Law enforcement experts and police reform advocates agreed that vast changes are needed, though they didn’t agree on their form.

A coalition of police reform organizations said some videos from the Capitol suggested police were not only incompetent, but also potentially complicit in the siege and should be investigated for their actions. Other law enforcement experts said front-line officers were simply let down by their commanders, who failed to properly prepare.

Most agreed the Capitol Police should have been able to handle the threat posed given their substantial resources and the clear intelligence showing that those gathering were intent on causing destruction.

“There were not enough officers either inside or outside the Capitol to handle the crowd. We can back up from there and try to find out what the failures were, but it is obvious the officers were overrun,” said Terry Gainer, a former chief of the Capitol Police and former Senate sergeant at arms.

“There are a lot of resources they have access to. Why they weren’t there, I have no idea,” said Charles Ramsey, a policing consultant and former head of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. “There is no reason why anybody should have been able to get inside and breach the U.S. Capitol.”

Ramsey said it was particularly shocking that Capitol Police had not adequately secured the Capitol given that much of the nation’s leadership was inside the building at the time for the joint session of Congress, and the fact that they had significant intelligence about threats.

According to a law enforcement source, the FBI had estimated that as many as 20,000 people would be attending the protest, where Trump urged his followers toward the Capitol and repeated his baseless assertions that the election was stolen from him.

Still, federal law enforcement had planned to keep the presence of heavily armed police or military to a minimum, sources said. The National Guard had provided the District of Columbia with only 350 personnel, largely for traffic duty and crowd control on public transit, but also with 40 members of a “quick response” team outside the district, after an initial request from the district for the planned protests. That was the only request they received before Wednesday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said, before the district requested more resources about 2 p.m. that day.

Sund, for his part, issued a statement saying that his officers had “responded valiantly” in the face of thousands of people storming the building, two pipe bombs and a suspicious vehicle on the Capitol complex. He said more than 50 Capitol and D.C. police officers were injured, with several Capitol officers hospitalized with serious injuries.

One woman, among the crowd that had stormed the Capitol, was fatally shot by an officer. A Capitol officer, Brian Sicknick, who was injured in the riot Wednesday, died Thursday. The Capitol Police said they arrested about 14 people, and the D.C. police announced more than 60 arrests. Law enforcement is continuing to search for suspects.

Sund said the entire episode is under review, with his agency assessing “security planning and policies and procedures.”

Ramsey said that he likes Sund, who had worked for him on the D.C. force, but there was no excuse for things going as wrong as they did. “He screwed up,” Ramsey said. “They just were not prepared.”

Gus Papathanasiou, who leads the Capitol Police union, agreed, saying leadership failed officers who nonetheless managed to keep members of Congress and others in the building safe.

“Our officers did their jobs. Our leadership did not,” Papathanasiou said.

Larry D. Schaefer, a retired 34-year veteran of the Capitol Police who served on its union committee, said he had “never seen the department so unprepared” for a major event.

Schaefer said the department has an extensive intelligence system, works with other agencies and monitors social media and other sources to predict how large crowds will be and how they will act. He said it usually over-deploys to be safe, staging dozens of officers in riot gear on buses, “ready to swoop in” if things go south.

However, no such backup force appeared to be in place on Wednesday — perhaps in part because of COVID-19-related force reductions — and individual officers suffered the consequences, he said.

Ed Obayashi, a Northern California use-of-force expert, called the tactics employed by the Capitol Police “an unmitigated embarrassment.” They relied on low-level barriers, left officers in regular uniform without riot gear at hand, and did not appear to have robust chains of command in place around the perimeter of the building, he said. All those apparent failures left the mob in control, Obayashi said.

“They streamed through the rotunda like they were tourists,” he said.

Congress’ anger over the events and the pending investigation into what went wrong could shine a light on an agency that is shrouded in secrecy despite years of efforts by open-government groups to ensure more transparency.

The U.S. Capitol Police is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, which requires most federal agencies to provide records to the public. The agency’s inspector general does not publish its investigations publicly. Agency staff denied a request by The Times for reports relating to arrests made Wednesday and didn’t answer questions about the siege and the agency’s transparency policies.

Progressive groups have noted the Capitol Police would easily dwarf most municipal police departments, with 2,000 sworn officers and a budget of $515 million. By comparison, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department was funded at $556 million with roughly 3,800 officers last year.

Melissa Wasser of the Project on Government Oversight, which has advocated for reforms, said Wednesday’s response to the pro-Trump mob didn’t square with the agency’s capabilities or its reputation for being tough on crime.

“As a person of color, yesterday’s events just really showed me that police know when not to use force,” she said. “Why were they not prepared? What kind of planning went into this?”

Wasser said she hopes Congress will make Capitol Police reform a priority now that members have been directly affected by the agency’s failures.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff noted that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of Capitol Police was tripled, and the latest failures — despite clear signals that trouble was brewing — are sure to “become one of the top agenda items for Homeland Security.”

“If you opened your eyes and looked at the newspaper, they were advertising what they were going to do,” he said of those who stormed the Capitol. “Did you adequately prepare to respond to what was obviously going to be a very contentious and likely violent encounter?”

Times staff writer Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.

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