Keeping Watch: Agency Marks 175 Years
Department Looks Back on Nearly Two Centuries of Growth, Turbulent Times and Losses Among the Ranks
Robert Howe can recall in detail the training regimen required by the Capitol Police in March 1971, when he joined the force — after all, it lasted just four hours.
“I spent two hours reading a manual, I took a 10-question quiz, I qualified with my weapon, I drew my uniform and I worked 3 ’til 11 that night in the Capitol,” explained Howe, the department’s assistant chief.
Like many aspects of the Capitol Police, the agency’s training procedures have, of course, changed significantly during the past three decades — today officers train for an extensive 22-week period.
Development of the training program is just one example of how far the department has come in its 175-year history, which it marked with an anniversary celebration earlier this year.
The law-enforcement agency, now looking to expand to upwards of 1,500 sworn officers and beginning a merger with the Library of Congress police force, actually traces its roots to 1801, with the installation of the Capitol’s first watchman, John Golding.
The watchman’s post, which would remain a solitary one for nearly two decades, was charged with a simple yet broad mission: “Take as much care as possible of the property of the United States.”
Despite this directive, however, the watchman lacked legal authority of any kind.
“We must assume that the solitary guards had frequent occasion to wish that they could call on more than simply the force of their individual personalities,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) wrote in his four-volume history of the Senate.
Eventually, in 1823, President James Monroe ordered Marines to serve as additional support, but even the military designees lacked the power to detain suspects on federal land without the help of the District of Columbia police.
Four years later, under the direction of President John Quincy Adams, the number of watchmen quadrupled to four, replacing the Marines.
The following year, 1828, Adams’ son was beaten in the Capitol Rotunda, and Congress, sparked in part by that incident and by repeated trespassers — “apparently some people had broken down the public enclosure and turned in cattle to graze,” according to the 1985 Statutory History of the United States Capitol Police Force — passed legislation extending police regulations to the Capitol grounds, and in doing so, established the Capitol Police Department.
The agency would not add another officer to the four-man force until 1841, and in the preceeding years the small group of men would work 15-hour days while Congress was in session, and 10-hour days during recess periods.
In the same year, the Architect of Public Buildings described the department’s duties as the enforcement of the rules of both chambers “in relation to preserving order within the limits of the Capitol square, especially in relation to hackney coaches and drivers, vagrants and beggars, drunkards, disorderly persons, and persons of ill fame,” the statutory history states.
It was not until 1854 that officers began to don uniforms and carry hickory canes for service weapons, and despite the slow growth in the number of men, the Capitol Police began to draw criticism about its size in the late 1860s.
“With the expansion of the force came the inevitable criticism that it was getting too large and that its membership, which included a large number of Civil War veterans, was not suited to the heavy responsibility of protecting the Capitol,” Byrd wrote.
Nonetheless, the force continued to swell, reaching 40 officers by 1873, the same year Congress established the Capitol Police Board, the department’s governing body. (In addition to the original board, comprised of the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms and the Architect of the Capitol, the Capitol Police chief now serves as an ex-officio member.)
The close of the 19th century showed 67 men on the police roster, including posts added during the Spanish-American War.
Debate over the ever-increasing number of police would occur again in 1911, Byrd wrote, several years after the force added 26 officers to patrol the newly constructed Russell Senate Office Building and Cannon House Office Building. That growth appeared to be insufficient four years later, when a former Harvard German instructor named Erich Muenter, who opposed U.S. assistance to Great Britain in World War I, set off three sticks of dynamite behind the Senate switchboard, destroying much of the Senate Reception Room.
Proponents of the police would win out, and growth continued into 1928, when, at its 100th anniversary, the Capitol Police numbered 90 officers.
In 1935, in an attempt to improve the quality of officers — many of whom were still Civil War veterans — Captain William Orthman recommended the department adopt standards for age, height and weight.
Throughout its early history, the bulk of officers on duty had been appointed by Senate or House Members through the patronage system, and setting standards, Byrd writes, would allow the patronage committees more leeway in turning away unfit candidates.
‘We Had No Training’
The patronage system would continue to shape the law-enforcement agency until it was dismantled in the early 1970s.
To some, patronage would prevent the true professionalization of the force, as Congress was reticent to spend funds on a group comprised largely of students and seasonal employees.
“People were poorly trained. They were used for short periods of time,” explained Howe, himself an appointee of Wyoming Sen. Cliff Hansen (R). “The entire professional level of the police department was not very high. You had this small number of people, some detailed from the Metropolitan Police Department, some from Capitol Police who had to handle anything major.”
In fact, formal training for the department had only been introduced in 1947, which according to Capitol Police records “consisted mainly of basics and stressed courtesy and neatness.”
Because officers relied on Members for their employment, some felt a greater allegiance to their patrons than to the department itself.
Capitol Police Inspector Leonard Ballard, a fixture in the department who served 37 years before retiring in 1984, recalled the early years of his employment in a 1983 interview with Senate Historian Richard Baker.
“We had no training. Actually, we were better off,” said Ballard, who died in 1994. “We provided a service for the Members and that’s what we thought we were supposed to do. We didn’t know we were supposed to arrest people. If a Member was a little under the weather, we took him home, or if a staff member was a little under the weather, [we’d say], ‘Don’t drive that car. Give us the keys. We’ll take you home.’”
That devotion to Members even extended to unpaid hours on the campaign trail for some officers, Howe noted.
Of course, that willingness could, in part, be attributed to the fact that keeping a Member in office, or even in the majority, would result in job safety. “When you came to work in the morning, the first thing you did was look up at the flags on the Capitol building and if they were at half mast, you hurried in to the office to find out whether that was your sponsor who had passed away. Because if it was, chances are you lost your job,” Howe said.
And election results could also play a role in status among police, Howe explained: “An individual could be a lieutenant on one day and an officer the next, depending on the politics of things.”
Many of the officers, however, were students, appointed by Members while working their way through local universities. Among those officers was Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who served on the force in the early 1960s.
Reflecting on his days in uniform, Reid, who was then attending George Washington University law school, quipped: “The most dangerous thing I ever did was direct traffic.”
‘We Nearly Lost Our Jobs’
The future of the Capitol Police was threatened in 1954, following an incident in which four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House gallery, wounding five Members.
Afterward, the House Administration Committee proposed a broad set of training reforms for the Capitol Police.
“At the time, new recruits were issued revolvers without having had any formal training, although the majority were war veterans,” Byrd wrote. “Captain William Broderick told the committee he believed that only 35 to 40 of this 157-member force would be qualified to continue serving, once the proposed reforms were instituted.”
The bill never passed the Senate, however, something Ballard asserted was the result of careful lobbying by the officers themselves.
“[W]e killed it with the women, not the men. You know, the average Senator, if you stop him, he’ll say, ‘See John or Mary or whomever.’ So we went to where we knew the power was — their wives,” he explained.
In the years that followed, the Capitol Police, led by a chief and several officers on permanent detail from the Metropolitan Police Department, dealt with numerous demonstrations, including those stemming from the Vietnam War and the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
That turbulent period was capped by a March 1971 incident in which the Weather Underground, asserting it was protesting U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, detonated a bomb in a first-floor bathroom of the Senate wing. Although no one was injured, the physical damaged was extensive and prompted new security measures, including hand-searches of briefcases and other items.
The bombing, along with other incidents, would drive further development of the department, which by 1973 numbered 1,000 officers and in 1974 would include its first two female officers, and its policies.
“In the late ’70s, again, we had an incident, in the Russell Building where an individual attempted to get into Senator [Edward] Kennedy’s [D-Mass.] office with a knife, and we very quickly realized that the simple handbag searches that we had been doing at the doors was insufficient and we began placing metal detectors in the entrances to the office buildings.”
Around the same time, the department also began to focus on specialized training, such as dealing with hostage situations, and creating its first Containment and Emergency Response Team. (In 1984, Sgt. Christopher Eney would accidentally be killed during a CERT training exercise, becoming the first officer killed in the department’s history.)
In 1980 the department’s leadership transferred to Congress from the District’s police department, and was followed in 1981 by an expansion of its jurisdiction nationwide to allow officers traveling with Members to protect them anywhere in the United States.
In 1983, another bombing incident occurred in the Capitol, just outside Room S-208, occupied at the time by then-Minority Leader Byrd.
An organization known as the Armed Resistance Unit claimed responsibility for the bomb, which wrecked the Republican Cloakroom and damaged surrounding corridors, citing the U.S. military’s involvement in Grenada and Lebanon.
The incident, in combination with another bombing attempt that had been halted just a month earlier, again led to more stringent security, including the creation of identification badges for Congressional staff and members of the press.
“I think, after 1983, the second bombing in the Capitol, things became more proactive,” Howe recalled. “We actually went out and did, I think probably for the first time, a comprehensive overall look at security on the grounds.”
The resulting security plan also changed the physical makeup of the campus, calling for traffic barricades and halting the use of the East Front plaza as a traffic thoroughfare.
And the force continued to expand during the decade, from 1,148 officers in 1980 to 1,335 by 1989, outnumbering Members of Congress by more than 2-to-1.
‘Always at Risk’
Security measures continued to evolve, with both the Senate and House mandating the screening staffers by the time Gary Abrecht took over as the department’s chief in 1992.
Despite the high profile of Members of Congress, Abrecht acknowledged in a recent interview, the department remained relatively unknown off the Hill, even among other law-enforcement agencies.
“Before 1998, it was one of the hidden gems of law enforcement,” he said. “It was really an outstanding department that had very little interaction with the outside world.”
Though Abrecht worked with various groups, such as the Police Chiefs Committee and District of Columbia Law Enforcement Executives Forum, to raise awareness, the department was launched into the national spotlight by tragedy instead.
In July 1998, Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson were killed in the line of duty by alleged shooter Russell Weston Jr., a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic now held in a Butner, N.C., federal prison hospital who has been charged but not tried in the murders.
Reflecting on the men’s deaths and the ceremonies that followed, Abrecht described the incident as “heart-wrenching.”
“The police officers are always at risk, and we understand that,” he added.
Though in the immediate aftermath Members pushed forward with plans for the Capitol Visitor Center and other security measures, funds for the department began to slow within just a few years.
“Each one of these incidents only last so long — institutional memory is a rare commodity in the Capitol,” Abrecht lamented.
But a renewed fervor hit the Hill following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, when even the Capitol Police’s most mundane tasks — checking IDs and guarding doors — took on new importance.
Those feeling were only further heightened a month later, when a letter containing anthrax was sent to the office of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
The events sparked a nearly two-year period in which appropriations for Capitol security were assigned without question.
During that period, the department experienced a growth spurt of nearly 509 officers, reaching its present-day size of more than 1,400 sworn officers and 230 civilian personnel.
In the coming months, the Capitol Police will focus on its next expansion, a merger with the Library of Congress police force — which numbers around 130 officers — mandated by the 2003 omnibus spending bill.
“We’re off to an incredible start,” Howe said. “There’s always something to do.”