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How the U.S. Capitol Police were overrun in a ‘monumental’ security failure

  • Author: Peter Hermann, Carol D. Leonnig, Aaron C. Davis, David A. Fahrenthold, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 7
  • Published January 7

Protesters fight to gain access to the U.S. Capitol during a joint congressional session to certify the electoral college vote in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard)

WASHINGTON - Inside the U.S. Capitol, the rioters were in charge.

Trump supporters were roaming freely, carrying off furniture. Capitol Police had not asked other law enforcement agencies for help until their building was surrounded by a mob seeking to overturn the election results. Now, their officers were exhausted and injured. Their chief was down the street, in the department command center, and a police commander on the scene was pacing in a circle. Top congressional leaders, hidden in secure rooms, were calling the governors of Maryland and Virginia directly to plead for help.

At last, reinforcements arrived: District of Columbia police officers, who wear an image of the Capitol building on their department’s official patch, but rarely enter the building itself.

“What we did do was restore democracy for all of America,” District Police Chief Robert Contee III said.

On Thursday, a day after hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed and ransacked the Capitol, lawmakers and police officials were still trying to understand the cascade of failures that caused the Capitol Police force - a city-size police department focused on a single complex - to let that building fall.

Those failures began days before the attack, when law enforcement agencies across Washington failed to prepare for an assault on the Capitol - even as Trump supporters openly plotted one online. They were compounded by the slow response on the day of the siege, when Capitol Police and other federal agencies did not head off a mass of Trump supporters who descended on the Capitol, egged on by the president himself, and command within the complex broke down.

“How could they fail so miserably? [The mob] could have blown the building up. They could have killed us all,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime Trump ally.

No lawmakers were hurt. But four people died during the Capitol breach, including one woman who was fatally shot by police as she tried to break through to a room next to the House chamber.

The recriminations were swift. On Thursday, three of Congress’s top security officials - Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger - had resigned or were set to.

Neither Irving nor Stenger, both Secret Service veterans, or Sund, who was previously a top District police official, responded to requests for comment.

Before the news broke Thursday that he will resign on Jan. 16, Sund said in a statement that the Capitol Police had prepared a “robust plan” for Wednesday.

But, Sund said, they had readied for a demonstration - and instead were confronted with “criminal riotous behavior.”

On Thursday, District officials said that their department had brought order out of chaos - a striking reversal of roles for the federal government and the city that surrounds it. City officials - who have sometimes been treated with condescension by federal leaders - said they had saved the building when the feds had failed.

“There was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol,” Contee said Thursday.

But law enforcement experts said they were stunned that the Capitol had been left so undefended, noting several factors that contributed to the mayhem.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

While District police, major federal law enforcement agencies and neighboring police departments have agreements to assist each other in cases of emergencies, the Capitol Police did not make early requests for mutual aid with the District National Guard or District police, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe security preparations.

And unlike other major government events like inaugurations, there was no large-scale frozen security zone around the building, and Justice Department officials did not create a multiagency command center. Instead, both federal law enforcement agencies and National Guard troops kept a low profile, scarred by criticism of their involvement in the response to protests after the death of George Floyd last summer.

And there appeared to be minimal efforts to build a secure perimeter around the Capitol. It wasn’t until Thursday morning that fencing went up around the complex.

“The police should have defined a hard line and there should have been consequences for crossing it,” said Frank Larkin, former Senate sergeant at arms who has planned for many security threats to the Capitol. “The fight should have been outside. Not inside. To have that confrontation at the door, that was a losing formula.”

There had been signs that Wednesday’s protests could turn violent. Pro-Trump Internet forums had been full of posts promising violence. Trump had cast Congress - which was about to formalize his defeat in the 2020 election - as the target.

So why would an attack against Congress be out of the question?

“You didn’t need intelligence. You just needed to read the newspaper,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Homeland Security secretary from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. “They were advertising, ‘Let’s go wild. Bring your guns.’ You don’t need to have an FBI investigation. You just need to be able to be able to read.”

When Wednesday arrived, Washington looked very different than it had during the Floyd protests last summer, when officers in riot gear filled the streets and then-Attorney General William Barr supervised from a Justice Department command center. That reaction was criticized as excessive, but it followed some key police precepts. Create a security zone with heavy fencing, and come down hard on anyone who tries to enter. Build multiple lines of defense, so a breach of one line doesn’t start a rout. And keep a clear chain of command.

At the Capitol on Wednesday, by contrast, the grounds were guarded in some places only by low pieces of fencing and officers in street uniforms.

Richard Barnett, a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump ,sits inside the office of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during an invasion by extremists inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

About 1 p.m., with crowds gathering outside the building, Sund requested help from District police, according to people familiar with the appeal. District police sent reinforcements to the outside of the building. It wasn’t enough.

When the first attackers arrived, according to videos taken by witnesses, they picked up the fences, hit the officers with them, and kept going. Police officers simply ran with them, routed already.

Some officers ran toward the main entry doors at the top of a series of stairs, trying unsuccessfully to block a rush of protesters who breached the fallen barricades below. Some stood exhausted from battling the group’s repeated assaults and efforts to attack them with pipes and bike racks.

By 1:50 p.m., video appeared on Facebook of protesters pushing against barricades on the north side of the Capitol. By 1:58 p.m., the crowd was pushing a barricade out of the way, leaving a gaping hole for protesters to flood toward the complex. Within minutes, protesters were on the steps, and by 2:15 p.m., 26 minutes after the riot started, the mob breached the building.

In a short period, Capitol Police officers were overrun. For a time, the head of the Capitol Police union said Thursday, they had to choose between protecting their building and getting members of Congress, staff and reporters out.

“Once the breach of the Capitol building was inevitable, we prioritized lives over property, leading people to safety,” Gus Papathanasiou, head of the Capitol Police union, said in a statement. He said the union wanted Sund and his entire command staff to resign. “This lack of planning led to the greatest breach of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812,” when British forces burned the Capitol, Papathanasiou said.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said he worried that the lack of preparedness was rooted in police’s perception of the crowd. He said officers might have seen a largely White group as inherently less hostile.

“They see Black Lives Matter and go ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to be ready.’ But, hey, these people have their blue lives matter flags all over the place,” which made them seem pro-police, Acevedo said. “And that bias and that false sense of security bit them. And it bit them in a historical fashion yesterday.”

“It is a monumental failure,” Acevedo said of the response.

Inside the Capitol, it seemed like no help was coming. The mob roamed freely in many cases, ransacking offices and destroying furniture.

By early Wednesday afternoon, Sund made an urgent plea for backup from the District National Guard during a call with top Pentagon and city officials, according to officials familiar with the call. But Defense officials balked, concerns about the “optics” of soldiers inside the Capitol building, two District officials said.

During the melee, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he got a call from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who was in a secure location under police protection.

“I was actually on the phone with Leader Hoyer who was pleading with us to send the Guard,” Hogan said Thursday.

But the governor said he was initially stymied: Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, was repeatedly rebuffed by the Defense Department.

Hoyer “was yelling across the room to [Senate Minority Leader Charles E.] Schumer and they were back and forth saying, we do have the authorization and I’m saying, ‘I’m telling you we do not have the authorization,’ " Hogan recalled. It wasn’t until about 90 minutes later that the secretary of the Army called asking the Maryland guardsmen to “come as soon as possible,” the governor said.

District of Columbia National Guard stand outside the Capitol, Wednesday night, Jan. 6, 2021, after a day of rioting protesters. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said he also got a call on his cellphone Wednesday.

“It showed up, ‘Nancy Pelosi,’ " he said, recalling his surprise. “She was really concerned. She said they needed help and I assured her that we had deployed the Guard and we’d sent the Virginia State Police. She said, ‘Ralph, there’s glass being broken around me. I’ve heard there’s been gunfire. We’re just very, very concerned right now.’ "

Northam said he mobilized Virginia National Guard units. They did not arrive at the Capitol until Thursday morning, long after the breach was over. Virginia also sent state police troopers, who arrived earlier.

At a news conference Thursday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who along with the acting defense secretary was commanding the District Guard on the president’s behalf, defended the Pentagon’s handling of the requests for backup from the Capitol Police and congressional lawmakers. He said a contingent of guardsmen already deployed were taken off their traffic posts, moved back to the armory to put on riot gear and then sent back to Capitol within two hours after a request for additional assistance was made. (Defense officials later activated the full District Guard.)

Inside the Capitol, police who had lost control of the building sought to defend smaller and smaller pockets - like the House chamber itself. Inside the Speaker’s Lobby - an ornate antechamber that opens onto the House floor - police had barricaded the door with chairs and furniture.

The rioters broke a window, and a California woman name Ashli Babbitt sought to climb through. Officers shouted at her to stop. Behind her, in the chaos, were other Capitol Police officers in tactical gear and some Hill staff. Then, from inside the lobby, a plainclothes Capitol Police stepped out from a protected corner and fired his pistol at Babbitt. The bullet hit her in the neck, and Babbitt fell back through the hole, onto the ground.

Capitol Police had been warned that some in the mob surrounding the Capitol were surreptitiously carrying firearms. Babbitt, two law enforcement officials said, was unarmed. She died later. Three other people died during the protests, one of a stroke and the other two of unspecified medical emergencies.

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Capitol Police, declined to answer questions about the shooting. The incident is being investigated by the District Metropolitan Police internal affairs division, which has jurisdiction to investigate all officer-related shootings that occur in the District.

U.S. Capitol Police with guns drawn stand near a barricaded door as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

After rioters were already inside the building, the District police reinforcements, led by a District police officer, Inspector Robert Glover, began to take charge inside the Capitol itself.

To start, he sent a contingent of Capitol Police and District officers to retake the Capitol’s famed Statuary Hall - which one officer said was “like a mosh pit” full of shoving rioters. Then he sent officers to make a floor-by-floor search, corralling rioters and escorting them out.

“If it wasn’t for Inspector Glover, we would have probably lost both chambers to looting and had a complete overtaking of the building,” the officer on the scene said. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the news media.

Gradually, other federal law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen also began to arrive. The Capitol was cleared and the Senate and House sessions resumed about 7 p.m.

On Thursday, lawmakers said they would investigate how the Capitol Police failed - and why it took so long for others, including the Pentagon, to send reinforcements.

“These are taxpayer dollars that are being used to pay these officers and to fund the United States military,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., noting that three officials in the line of presidential succession - Vice President Mike Pence, Pelosi and Senate President Pro Tempore Charles Grassley, R-Iowa - were all inside the Capitol when it was breached. “Taxpayers deserve to know why were unable to defend the capitol from attack, why it took only an hour for a handful of ragamuffin, half-armed protesters to enter the building and pose a grave threat to the continuity of democracy.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who leads the House committee that controls appropriations for Capitol Police said in a news conference that the more he learned, the more he had become “livid” about the failure of police planning, intel-gathering and federal command and control around the protest. He said he anticipated an investigation in the vein of those Congress launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The attacks on Wednesday, Ryan said, had “broken the veil of protection” around one of the shrines of American democracy.

“We are never going to look at the Capitol the same way again,” Ryan said.

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The Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti, Devlin Barrett, Paul Sonne, Tom Jackman, Rachel Weiner, Ovetta Wiggins, Laura Vozzella and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

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