Capitol Police face outrage after rejecting federal help

Colleen Long, Lolita Baldor, Michael Balsamo, and Nomaan Merchant
Associated Press

Washington — Three days before the pro-President Donald Trump insurgence at the Capitol, the Pentagon asked the U.S. Capitol Police if it needed National Guard manpower. And as the mob descended on the building Wednesday, Justice Department leaders reached out to offer up FBI agents.

The police turned them down both times, according to a defense official and two people familiar with the matter.

Despite plenty of warnings of a possible insurrection and ample resources and time to prepare, the Capitol Police planned only for a free speech demonstration.

A U.S. Capitol police officer wears a gas mask as supporters of President Donald Trump enter the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington.

Still stinging from the uproar over the violent response by law enforcement to protests last June near the White House, officials also were intent on avoiding any appearance that the federal government was deploying active duty or National Guard troops against Americans.

The result is the U.S. Capitol was overrun Wednesday and officers in a law enforcement agency with a large operating budget and experience in high-security events protecting lawmakers were overwhelmed for the world to see.

The chaos ended with 68 arrests, including at least six Michigan residents, the National Guard being deployed, and the shooting death of a 35-year-old woman by Capitol police as she reportedly crawled through a broken window. Three other protesters died from medical emergencies.

The rioting and loss of control have raised serious questions over security at the Capitol for future events.

“This was a failure of imagination, a failure of leadership,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, whose department responded to several large protests last year following the death of George Floyd. “The Capitol Police must do better and I don’t see how we can get around that.”

Acevedo said he has attended events on the Capitol grounds to honor slain police officers that had higher fences and a stronger security presence than what he saw on video Wednesday.

The actions of the day also raise troubling concerns about the treatment of mainly white Trump supporters who were allowed to roam through the building for hours, while Black and brown protesters who demonstrated last year over police brutality say they faced more robust and aggressive policing.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

"The world had a front-row view of not only Donald Trump’s undermining of our democracy, but also saw the double standard in policing protest in this country that exists based on your race and the threat your message poses to the status quo," U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said in a statement.

"It’s hard not to think about the contrast in how we saw racial justice protesters brutalized by police over the summer and in years past, to how we saw terrorists handled with a soft glove by police yesterday." 

But some police officials disagreed. Detroit police Chief James Craig says facts don't match the claim that Black Lives Matter protesters are treated differently by police than those who occupied the Capitol on Wednesday.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig.

"The perception is that if these were African American protesters scaling the Capitol building, that they would've been met with force early on," Craig said. "But we saw what happened in Seattle, when Black Lives Matter protesters took over an entire section of the city, including the police precinct — they were met with no resistance whatsoever from police."

Craig also questioned the Capitol Police response to Wednesday's breach: "They appeared to let the protesters into the building. There was very little resistance by those officers; they just let them walk right in."

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said as Wednesday's rioting was underway, it became clear Capitol Police were overrun. There was no contingency planning done in advance for what forces could do in case of a problem at the Capitol. “They’ve got to ask us, the request has to come to us,” said McCarthy.

Facing a growing backlash, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said late Thursday he would resign, effective Jan. 16.

Chief Steven A. Sund testifies during the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Capitol Police FY2021 Budget Request, in the Capitol on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

“There was a failure of leadership at the top,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the incoming majority leader, said he will fire the Senate sergeant-at-arms. The House sergeant at arms resigned. 

The U.S. Capitol had been closed to the public since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 350,000 people. But normally, the building is open to the public and lawmakers pride themselves on their availability to their constituents.

It is not clear how many officers were on-duty Wednesday, but the complex is policed by a total of 2,300 officers for 16 acres of ground who protect the 435 House representatives, 100 U.S. Senators and their staff. By comparison, the city of Minneapolis has about 840 uniformed officers policing a population of 425,000 in a 6,000-acre area.

There were signs for weeks that violence could strike on Jan. 6, when Congress convened for a joint session to finish counting the Electoral College votes that would confirm Democrat Joe Biden had won the presidential election.

On far-right message boards and in pro-Trump circles, plans were being made.

The leader of the far-right extremist-group Proud Boys was arrested coming into the nation’s capital this week on a weapons charge for carrying empty high-capacity magazines emblazoned with their logo. He admitted to police that he made statements about rioting in the District of Columbia, local officials said.

Both Acevedo and Ed Davis, a former Boston Police commissioner who led the department during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, said they did not fault the responses of clearly overmatched front-line officers, but the planning and leadership before the riot.

“Was there a structural feeling that well, these are a bunch of conservatives, they’re not going to do anything like this? Quite possibly,” Davis said. “That’s where the racial component to this comes into play in my mind. Was there a lack of urgency or a sense that this could never happen with this crowd? Is that possible? Absolutely.”

Civil rights leaders expressed outrage at what they saw Wednesday, saying the police handling of the Capitol breach illustrated the disparity in how Black and brown protesters are treated.

“Unfortunately and routinely, we are met by police in tactical gear on top of armored tanks, dropping tear gas, carrying automatic rifles, and walking with bloodhounds to control our peaceful execution of the constitutional right to protest," said Kamilla Landrum, executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP. 

In the days and hours leading up to Wednesday's events, Trump and his allies were perhaps the biggest megaphones, encouraging protesters to turn out in force and support his false claim that the election had been stolen from him. He egged them on during a rally shortly before they marched to the Capitol and rioted. His personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor known for his tough-on-crime stance, called for “trial by combat.”

But the Capitol Police had set up no hard perimeter around the Capitol. Officers were focused on one side where lawmakers were entering to vote to certify Biden’s win.

Barricades on the plaza to the building were set up, but police retreated from the line and a mob of people broke through. Lawmakers, at first unaware of the security breach, continued their debate. Soon they were cowering under chairs. Eventually, they were escorted from the House and Senate. Journalists were left alone in rooms for hours as the mob attempted to break into barricaded rooms.

Officials with the Department of Justice, the FBI and other agencies monitored hotels, flights and social media for weeks and were expecting massive crowds. Mayor Muriel Bowser had warned of impending violence for weeks, and businesses had closed in anticipation.

She requested National Guard help from the Pentagon on Dec. 31, but the Capitol Police turned down the Jan. 3 offer from the Defense Department, according to Kenneth Rapuano, assistant defense secretary for homeland security.

U.S. Capitol Police hold protesters at gunpoint near the House Chamber inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

The Justice Department’s offer for FBI support as the protesters grew violent was rejected by the Capitol Police, according to the two people familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

By then, it was too late.

Officers from the Metropolitan Police Department descended. Agents from nearly every Justice Department agency, including the FBI, were called in. So was the Secret Service and the Federal Protective Service. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent two tactical teams. Police from as far away as New Jersey arrived to help.

It took four hours to disperse the protesters from the Capitol complex. By then, they had roamed the halls of Congress, posed for photos inside hallowed chambers, broken through doors, destroyed property and taken photos of themselves doing it. Only 13 were arrested at the time, scores were arrested later.

"There were unacceptable security failures that occurred yesterday, and I fully support an investigation into why those occurred and how Capitol Police can improve," U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, said Thursday. "There must be a serious review of how federal agencies coordinate for events at the Capitol so adequate resources are on hand and there are no delays when backup is needed.  We must ensure that an attack like this never happens again, so representative democracy in our nation continues uninterrupted for generations to come.”

In the aftermath, a 7-foot fence will go up around the Capitol grounds for at least 30 days. The Capitol Police will conduct a review of the carnage, as well as their planning and policies. Lawmakers plan to investigate how authorities handled the rioting.

The acting U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin, said the failure to arrest more people is making their jobs harder.

“Look, we have to now go through cell site orders, collect video footage to try to identify people and then charge them, and then try to execute their arrest. So that has made things challenging but I can’t answer why those people weren’t zip-tied as they were leaving the building by the Capitol Police.”

In this July 27, 2020, file photo, a bloodied demonstrator is arrested by federal police during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore.

The show of force by law enforcement at the Capitol bore little resemblance to the lines of National Guardsmen and other police forces that assembled last year to protect luxury brand retailers against looting, government buildings against breaching and highways against marching by demonstrators across the country.

In June, Trump administration officials had federal officers clear Black Lives Matter protesters with flash-bang grenades and tear gas, to facilitate a now-infamous photo-op in front of a church near the White House.

BLM protesters and their supporters in Portland, Oregon, quickly pointed out Wednesday the huge disparity between Trump’s response to racial justice protests in the Pacific Northwest city and his encouragement of the violence in D.C.

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, the nation’s largest digital racial justice advocacy group, said he sees it as “a clear example of how racism works in this country and the clear ways there are different sets of rules and different sets of outcomes based on what race you are.”

Police form a perimeter during protests following the Nov. 3 presidential election in Portland, Ore. Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

On Thursday, Biden agreed there is the double standard, saying he had received a text message from his granddaughter, Finnegan, of a photo showing “military people in full military gear — scores of them lining the steps of the Lincoln Memorial” during a BLM protest last year.

“She said ‘Pop, this isn’t fair,’” the president-elect recounted.

“...If it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday … they would have been treated very, very differently than a mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”

Detroit News Staff Writers Jasmin Barmore and George Hunter contributed.