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Capitol Police force faces lawmaker demands for change

‘Building trust in law enforcement is essential,’ says key Democrat

National calls for greater police accountability have hit home for House appropriators, who are looking to open up the secretive department that protects Congress: the Capitol Police.

Their draft fiscal 2021 Legislative Branch spending bill and accompanying report call on the department to take numerous steps to give lawmakers and the public more access to its work. Those include a user-friendly system of arrest data, reports on efforts to combat racial profiling and making its records available to the public, among other actions.

The Capitol Police’s funding would stay level at $464 million compared with enacted law as part of the larger draft $4.2 billion Legislative Branch appropriations bill, which is to be taken up by the full Appropriations Committee on Friday. Senate-only spending is to be added later in the annual appropriations process.

[House Democrats propose removal of ‘racial intolerance’ statues from Capitol]

As part of the Legislative Branch, the Capitol Police is shielded from many transparency measures applicable to police forces across the country. The department is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and is not required to publicly disclose its internal inspector general reports.

Appropriators would require the department to develop a policy for publicly sharing information “that follows the spirit of” FOIA. Additionally, they are asking the department’s inspector general to make reports public “if they do not compromise law enforcement activities, national security, or Congressional security and processes without redaction.”

The inspector general is also asked to review all issued reports in the past three years and tell Congress which reports could have been made public.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey tied the proposed changes to the Capitol Police to the national debate over policing practices and social justice.

“At this moment, building trust in law enforcement is essential,” the New York Democrat said in a statement. “The Legislative Branch bill includes important reforms that will make the Capitol Police more accountable and transparent.”

Diversity, arrest reports

After the May death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, politicians across the country have been pushed to address racial injustice, particularly through the lens of policing.

Toward that end, the panel wants to know what efforts Capitol Police is making to stop racial profiling. The committee requests a report to itself and the House Administration Committee regarding training to prevent unconscious bias and racial profiling, as well as steps the department has taken to eliminate existing practices that permit racial profiling. It also wants arrest information organized by race, ethnicity and gender.

The committee also is requesting that the Capitol Police hire more officers from underrepresented groups, and it wants details on steps taken to promote workforce diversity along with data on positions in the department for sworn officers and civilian employees by race and gender.

The committee would also require the force to report on its interactions with the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department, including the number of arrests made and incident responses beyond the Capitol Police’s primary and extended jurisdiction.

The left-leaning group Demand Progress has noted that almost 10 percent of annual arrests by the Capitol Police are made at nearby Union Station. Many of those arrests are for traffic violations or drug use, according to the group. Union Station is outside of the department’s primary jurisdiction.

Further, the appropriators want the force to explore the potential development of an arrest data system that is provided to the public in a “user-friendly format that is searchable, sortable, downloadable.” The force would be pushed to set up a community notification system to receive alerts about security threats and severe weather conditions.

Capitol Police representatives did not respond to requests for comment. But the force is willing to undertake the changes, according to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, the ranking Republican on the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

“The U.S. Capitol Police must have adequate transparency and oversight, and we will continue to work across the aisle to seek these improvements,” she said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Capitol Police are aware of the report language affecting their operations and have signaled they will comply with the requests of the committee.”

The panel’s chairman, Ohio Republican Rep. Tim Ryan, also tied the proposals to the national attention to policing.

“Communities across the country are reviewing law enforcement practices and their impact on people of color, and that same scrutiny must be applied to the Capitol Police,” he said in a statement. “This legislation strengthens accountability and transparency for the Capitol Police and ensures they take steps to address both diversity within the force and racial profiling by officers.”

Further legislation

Rep. Rodney Davis, ranking member on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Capitol Police, is “generally supportive” of the Legislative Branch bill’s provisions, but “he believes more can be done,” according to committee spokeswoman Ashley Phelps.

The Illinois Republican on Thursday introduced his own Capitol Police transparency and accountability overhaul bill, dubbed the Capitol Police Advancement Act.

The legislation would mandate that the force produce a public semiannual report of its activities and participate in the collection and publication of law enforcement statistics consistent with other federal law enforcement agencies.

It would also make all Capitol Police inspector general reports available to the public, with the Capitol Police Board able to redact information considered law enforcement sensitive. Additionally, it would make a firing decision by the Capitol Police Board final.

“As we look at proposals to improve law enforcement across the country, I believe there are changes we can implement to strengthen the U.S. Capitol Police force as well,” Davis said in a statement.

“The Capitol Police Advancement Act increases public transparency and helps ensure bad actors do not remain on the force. It’s important we preserve the integrity of the Capitol Police for the many great men and women who work each day to protect members, staff, and visitors.”

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