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Capitol Police Force Has Evolved Over the Years

The Capitol Police department has developed alongside the institution that it is charged with protecting, evolving over the past two centuries from a single civilian guard to a modern, professional law enforcement agency with almost 2,000 officers.

According to the Office of the House Historian, early Capitol security consisted solely of John Golding, first appointed as a watchman in 1801. He and his successors had no power to make arrests and often required locally garrisoned Marines to intervene in emergencies.

“Political feelings ran strong, even in the 1820s,— Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says. “There were lots of visitors in the building — the building needed to be protected, the Members needed to be protected.—

By that time, it was clear that a full-time security force was required. Visiting ambassadors and foreign dignitaries needed official protection, while a fire in the mid-1820s destroyed a significant portion of the Capitol’s library collection.

“In 1827, the Marines were dismissed. President John Quincy Adams ordered a regular watch force of four men,— says Anthony Wallis, a research analyst for the Office of the House Historian. The very next year, Adams’ son was beaten in the Capitol Rotunda — leading to the watch force being deputized as a police force.

“The official start date is considered 1828,— Wallis says. Still, the newly established force did not wear uniforms and continued to rely on the city’s auxiliary guard to control crowds and deal with emergencies. It was not until around the time of the Civil War that a uniformed, armed police force emerged — just in time to provide security for the hotly contested impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

By the turn of the 20th century, the force consisted of about 70 officers. Uniforms and badges went from voluntary to mandatory in 1904. However, despite the trappings of professionalism, the police were still political appointees until well into the 20th century. Congress and the Capitol remained one of the last bastions of patronage in the increasingly professionalized federal government.

“The executive branch went to civil service in the 1880s,— Ritchie says. But in the Capitol, “everybody — the elevator operators, the police — were appointed by the Senators or Members of the House of Representatives.—

“A lot of the Capitol Police were college students or law students who needed an income while they were in school,— he adds. “They would apply to their Senators, and they would find them a position on the Capitol Police force.—

Notable Washington, D.C., figures such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and MSNBC host and former Hill aide Chris Matthews got their start on the force.

Still, Associate Senate Historian Betty Koed says, the desire for a more professional force with better law enforcement qualifications remained strong, especially considering modern 20th-century security threats.

“In the wake of World War II, we had a variety of events that made it apparent that we needed a more professional police force — like the Kennedy assassination,— Koed says. “By the time you get to the 1970s, the old patronage system is all but defunct.—

The switch from a patronage police force to a professional one did not occur overnight — rather, as patronage officers retired, more professionalized nonpolitical officers replaced them.

Today’s Capitol Police force has jurisdiction across the entire United States in order to protect Members of Congress traveling outside of Washington, D.C. It is a modern professional police force charged with protecting the sprawling Capitol complex and the city streets immediately surrounding it. In addition, the Capitol Police have the notoriously difficult task of balancing safety and access.

“Congress serves its constituents, who are voters. Congress has always tried to do business out in the open. The Capitol is still the most open of all public buildings,— Ritchie says. The police, he adds, “really tried to balance the need for security against the need for openness.—

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