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With big budget but little accountability, siege raises questions for long-troubled Capitol Police

  • Author: Beth Reinhard, Rosalind S. Helderman, Neena Satija, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 12
  • Published January 12

Rioters fight to gain access to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON - It was the spring of 2015 and the U.S. Capitol Police had suffered a string of embarrassing incidents.

Officers who protected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and then-House Speaker John Boehner had left their guns in bathrooms in the Capitol in January and March. Another unattended gun was found by a janitor cleaning police headquarters in April. That same month, a Florida postal worker protesting the influence of money in politics was able to land a small aircraft on the West Lawn in broad daylight.

By May, members of the House Administration Committee were asking pointed questions. The police chief said he was addressing the problems.

And then, Congress moved on.

“What that hearing really showed was the ineptness in the organizational hierarchy, the inability to get a handle on the agency, their lack of transparency and accountability to anybody,” said former congressman Richard Nugent, R-Fla., a retired county sheriff who served in Congress from 2011 to 2016. “If you let things like that go, there’s larger questions to be asked - what else are you sweeping under the rug or not paying attention to?”

Lawmakers considered changes five years ago and periodically over the past 15 years. Yet they left the Capitol Police largely impervious to public scrutiny, despite its ample funding and its prominent presence at the seat of U.S. government.

The force of about 2,100 sworn officers, which patrols a hallowed but tiny area, boasts a $516 million budget. That is more than twice the spending on police in Atlanta, 1 1/2 times the spending in Detroit and approaches the $545 million budget for the District of Columbia, budget documents show. Yet reports by the force’s Office of Inspector General, tasked with rooting out waste and fraud, are kept under wraps. The Capitol Police, like Congress, is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Unlike other law enforcement agencies, the police force releases little public information, even after calamitous incidents.

Six days after a pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol, the department still has not held a news conference to explain the enormous security breach or to highlight the heroism of individual officers. And it has not released the name and employment records of the officer who fatally shot Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt.

On Monday, a member of Congress first disclosed that two officers had been suspended and others were being investigated because of suspected involvement with or inappropriate support for the rioters.

Congress could require the Capitol Police to operate more like a government agency and less like a private security detail. But such demands for transparency might force awkward questions about Congress’s own exemption from public records laws.

“There hasn’t been a willingness to open it up to scrutiny by an institution that is reticent to do that,” said Terrance Gainer, who served as chief of the Capitol Police from 2002 to 2006. “Congress hasn’t made the rules apply to the department, so we didn’t have to meet the expectations that a state or city police agency have.”

He added, “If we are not transparent with the public for whom we are responsible, then what we are doing is suspect.”

Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki did not respond to detailed questions from The Washington Post about whether the department needed to be more transparent or receive stricter oversight.

The department reports to a little-known board that dates to the 1800s. It has three voting members: the sergeants at arms for the House and Senate, and the Architect of the Capitol. The archaic structure is established in federal law and means that the police chief has three unelected bosses, none of whom answers directly to the public.

“You have a lot of bosses, and I had to learn as chief how to deal with that,” said Gainer, the only person to serve as both police chief and Senate sergeant at arms. “If you have a process that doesn’t allow you to exercise your expertise, that’s a problem.”

Members of Congress are now calling for a full-scale investigation into what went wrong on Jan. 6, as a joint session met to count electoral college votes while an angry crowd incited by President Donald Trump descended on the Capitol.

The police chief and the House and Senate sergeants at arms all have resigned. In an interview with The Post on Sunday, outgoing Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund blamed his bosses on the police board for not promptly approving multiple requests to put the D.C. National Guard on standby.

“The arrangement needs to be changed,” Sund said. “I think ultimately it would really be good if the chief could make certain decisions; it would make the job a little easier.”

Neither House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving nor Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger has commented.

Five deaths have been linked to the riot, including that of Officer Brian Sicknick, who was injured in the confrontations. Officer Howard Liebengood, who was also at the Capitol, took his own life days later, a spokesman for Liebengood’s family told The Post.

Charles Ramsey, who worked with the Capitol officers as D.C. police chief from 1998 to 2007, said the federal force already should have provided a detailed accounting of its actions.

“The public has a right to know,” said Ramsey, who also led the Philadelphia Police Department. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. That is everybody’s Capitol. It belongs to all of us.”

Now, the upheaval that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to law enforcement departments nationwide has arrived in the Capitol.

Some law enforcement experts say change at the Capitol Police has been elusive and may continue to be so because, unlike other police departments, it doesn’t have customary constituents.

“They don’t have residents. They serve congressional members,” said J. Thomas Manger, former police chief in the neighboring counties of Fairfax, Va., and Montgomery, Md. “One of the things that encourages police to evolve is community pressure, but a big part of what the Capitol Police do is provide personal security for the members.”

Congress recently awarded an additional $50 million to the department for the 2021 fiscal year - extending a funding run that has seen the Capitol Police budget grow by more than 50% in the past decade, budget documents show. Lawmakers stopped short of requiring greater transparency, only suggesting that the Capitol Police “explore the possibility” of releasing more comprehensive arrest data and share information that “follows the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The department also does not use body cameras, another tool increasingly used by police forces to capture and share details of police work with the public.

Daniel Schuman, who tracks federal spending for Demand Progress, one of the few advocacy groups that acts as a watchdog on Capitol Police, said the department did not start disclosing weekly arrest reports until 2018. It still doesn’t provide aggregated information about its activities.

“If we were grading them, I would give them an F-minus,” Schuman said. “Why is so much [money] going to the Capitol Police, and what do they do with it?”

Since 1998, when a mentally ill man entered a checkpoint reserved for members of Congress and killed two officers, lawmakers have struggled to balance security concerns with the desire for an open door to the house of U.S. democracy.

Over the years, lawmakers have asked Capitol Police to secure the complex against all manner of threats, but they also feared making the building appear militarized or inaccessible to the public.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to sweeping security upgrades in government buildings. By 2005, however, members of the House grew concerned about how Capitol Police were managing a $19 million contact to prevent vehicles from getting close to the complex. Lawmakers successfully pushed to include language in a budget document indicating that they had “serious concerns over the lack of stewardship of the taxpayer dollars and how this exemplifies pervasive management issues and lack of asset accountability.”

Pro-Trump protesters clash with police outside the U.S. Capitol during the tally of electoral votes that would certify Joe Biden as the winner of the U.S. presidential election. Photo by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post.

When the Capitol Police force has been embroiled in heated controversies, the investigations that followed were released only in part or not at all.

After 12 people were killed in a 2013 mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the BBC reported that an armed Capitol Police tactical team was nearby when initial reports came in about an active shooter. The team requested permission to enter the building where the violence was underway but was denied and directed to return to the Capitol, according to the BBC.

A review by the Capitol Police Board concluded the reporting was unfair because the unit had been redeployed to address threats to the Capitol building. Only a two-page summary of the report was released.

James Konczos, then the head of the police union for the force, rejected the findings at the time and said last week that had the team stormed the building where the shooting was underway, “that situation would have been neutralized a lot quicker.”

Capitol Police faced tough questions again in 2013 when officers, along with members of the U.S. Secret Service, fired into the car of a Connecticut woman driving erratically on Capitol Hill. Miriam Carey, 34, was killed with her infant daughter in the back of the car. Her family has said police did not have to resort to violence, arguing that Carey - who was unarmed and had no criminal record - panicked while driving on unfamiliar streets.

The names of the officers who fired at her car were never divulged. An investigation into the incident was not made public by the department. A two-page news release by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington announced “insufficient evidence” to charge the officers.

In an interview last week, Carey’s sister, Valarie Carey, said Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol by a mostly White mob “resurrected” the anger she has felt since the death of her sister, who was Black. The department’s lack of transparency made it difficult to learn basic details about officers’ response to her sister, their training and any reforms, she said.

“They have not been brought to justice. They haven’t even had to answer for their actions,” she said. “If the public, including families, aren’t given information, who’s to say what exactly happened?”

Gainer, who was serving as the Senate sergeant of arms in 2013, said he now regrets that the Capitol Police were not more responsive to the public after Carey’s death and the Navy Yard shooting.

“Those were the rules we had grown up with, but there’s no reason to continue doing that,” he said. “Over the past few years, police departments have been expected to release videos and reports and had to adapt. We should have had to explain why we did or didn’t use deadly force, just like the Capitol Police should have to do for January 6th.”

Capitol Police leadership faced a rare grilling on Capitol Hill in 2015. During a House Administration Committee hearing, lawmakers said they never would have found out about the guns left unattended if it hadn’t been leaked to the news media.

In the same hearing, members wondered how Capitol Police could have been so unprepared that same year for a gyrocopter landing on the West Lawn. The postal worker piloting the small aircraft had live-streamed the flight, and a Florida newspaper reporter had emailed the police agency about it a half-hour before the landing. “To me, it just seems like it would be all hands on deck when you get an email like this,” Nugent told Kim Dine, the Capitol Police chief at the time.

Lawmakers wanted to know how the agency prepared for attacks, how it filtered daily online threats and whether the police board was getting in the chief’s way - questions gaining new relevance in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot.

“It was pretty disturbing to be honest,” Nugent said this week. He spent 38 years in law enforcement before his election to Congress, including a decade as the sheriff of Hernando County, Fla. “It just seemed like they took things for granted instead of saying, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ and preparing for it. Which is how you need to look at things.”

Nugent drew a line between the lack of preparedness for the gyrocopter stunt and the underreaction to calls on social media to swarm Congress. In his six years in Congress, Nugent said, he does not remember ever seeing an inspector general report or an internal investigation of the Capitol Police.

Dine defended his record in an interview this week and said decisions about releasing information to the public typically were made by the Capitol Police Board.

The incidents with the misplaced guns were “addressed internally and swiftly,” he said. The gyrocopter pilot was arrested immediately, he said, and no property was damaged. And he noted a number of changes on his watch, such as putting the entire agency through active-shooter training and creating a board to review investigations into employee misconduct.

“Stuff happens when you’re the chief, and leadership depends on how you handle it,” he said. “We were interested in trying to raise the bar and hold people accountable as best we could.”

Congress’s inconsistent oversight of its own police force has been a source of frustration to the union, which has clashed with the leadership over the years.

Konczos, the former union chief, who retired in 2016 after 30 years as a Capitol Police officer, said the union repeatedly told leadership that top managers were not qualified, that too much training was online and that the chief lacked power under the police board.

“We would explain how dysfunctional the department was. No one ever listened,” said Konczos, who served for a decade as chairman of the labor committee’s executive board.

The current union leader, Gus Papathanasiou, echoed those complaints and blamed police officials for poor planning for the Jan. 6 session of Congress.

“I want to highlight that the lack of communication with the officers on January 6th was not an anomaly,” he said. “It is part of a pattern we have seen from the current USCP leadership.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs the House committee that provides funding for the department, said at a news conference Monday that Congress needs to step up oversight “1,000%.” He said he had urged the acting police chief, Yogananda Pittman, to engage with the press in the future because “there’s been an issue with the Capitol Police around transparency.”

About four hours later, Pittman sent out a news release saying that several officers had been suspended and that “the investigation of the January 6 riot is continuing.”

The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.