Capitol Police overhauls, once an afterthought, now at forefront after riot

Police force has long operated in the shadows with little accountability

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., and other members take cover as a mob disrupts the certification of the Electoral College vote on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., and other members take cover as a mob disrupts the certification of the Electoral College vote on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 8, 2021 at 5:56pm

The Capitol Police, whose size and budget are equivalent to those of many metropolitan police departments, has typically received little attention from the lawmakers the force is sworn to protect despite leadership and cultural problems that have plagued the department for years.

But since a pro-Trump riot this week led to five deaths and exposed a colossal security failure in the Capitol, outraged lawmakers have begun calling for a comprehensive review that could result in substantive changes to law enforcement on Capitol Hill.

"There was an absolute epic fail on preparation, there was an epic fail on intelligence and there was an epic fail on, even though you were getting certain intelligence, you still should have been prepared for worst-case scenario," said Rep. Tim Ryan, chairman of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, a panel that oversees Capitol Police spending.

Congress made some small changes to improve oversight of the department just weeks before the violent mob breached the Capitol. But the Senate rejected bigger ones aimed at boosting transparency of a department that has long operated in the shadows with little accountability.

In the aftermath of the security breach, resistance to substantive change has subsided and lawmakers are hyper-focused — at least for now — on a comprehensive review that could result in material changes to law enforcement on Capitol Hill.

Ryan, the House appropriator, pushed for many of the Capitol Police accountability measures in the House's version of the most recent spending bill, but they were taken out or watered down by the Republican-led Senate.

Ryan told reporters Friday that he and his colleagues "will continue to vigorously push for those reforms."

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The provisions that did make it into the final version of the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending bill were vaguely written and largely toothless. The law, for instance, encourages the department to share information about its operations with the public but does not require it to do so.

In interviews over the past few weeks, lawmakers themselves were unable to provide more details of the potential effects of the changes in the spending law.

All of that seemed to change Wednesday when the pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol, interrupted Congress’s constitutional duty to certify the Electoral College victory of President-elect Joe Biden and threatened lawmakers.

The fallout has resulted in the resignations of the three top law enforcement officials on Capitol Hill: Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger.

Ryan said he supports the Capitol Police union request for Assistant Chief Chad Thomas and Assistant Chief Yogananda Pittman to be terminated because "the rank-and-file members of the Capitol Police have lost all trust in their leaders."

Assistant Chief Chad Thomas, left, and Chief Steven A. Sund, testify during a House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing in the Capitol on Feb. 11, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It has also prompted a number of inquiries into security failures that allowed pro-Trump insurrectionists, some armed, to penetrate the Capitol complex. The House Administration Committee will investigate in consultation with House and Senate leadership. Additionally, the Senate Homeland Security and Rules Committee announced a joint investigation.

Rep. Jackie Speier is leading an effort to establish an outside independent commission to review the security lapses, with many members signed on.

"Yesterday’s breach was a wake-up call: The Capitol security system, as it currently exists, is woefully insufficient," the California Democrat wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "That is why we are calling for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the security shortcomings at the U.S. Capitol, both during yesterday’s alarming breach and more broadly in order to make the Capitol complex more secure."

Beyond those efforts and broad goals, there is thus far little definitive about the kinds of changes that Congress might pursue. But lawmakers and congressional staff will certainly have to go beyond the meager provisions in the omnibus spending package.

The department, as part of the Legislative Branch, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, meaning it doesn't have to comply with records requests it doesn’t want to provide to the public. This includes incidents of officer misconduct, inspector general reports and other important information about activities of the police department.

The lack of transparency was most pronounced during Wednesday’s riot when the police chief failed to provide any information about the event until the day after the insurrection took place.

Just days before the deadly riot, Eva Malecki, a Capitol Police spokesperson, told Roll Call the department “has comprehensive security plans in place and we continuously monitor and assess new and emerging threats, with the overall goal of keeping those within the Capitol Complex safe and secure.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that funds Capitol Police, said that he had phone calls with that agency, the Army secretary, and also got the involvement of Ryan and fellow House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

“We need major reform to the way we defend the Capitol and we need to get started now,” Murphy tweeted.

Capitol Police officers receive medical treatment after clashes with rioters on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the expected next chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, also want answers. “I believe a thorough examination of Capitol security measures is necessary to prevent this from ever happening again,” Shelby said.

Ryan indicated that the inquiry will be as detailed as minute-by-minute explanations of decisions that were made and as broad as whether Trump holds responsibility.

“We will get to the bottom of this and those responsible must be held accountable. That includes those who incited this starting with the president,” Ryan tweeted.

Ryan and the subcommittee's top Republican, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, both expressed their interest in improving Capitol Police transparency when the House released its draft bill and accompanying report in July.

Rep. Rodney Davis, the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, also has taken steps to increase oversight of the force, which falls under his panel's jurisdiction. Last summer, the Illinois Republican introduced his own Capitol Police transparency and accountability overhaul bill, but it did not become law.

The initial House spending bill included the implementation of a public disclosure system aligned with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, exploring a more user-friendly arrest data system and making certain inspector general reports available that don't compromise law enforcement activities.

When the Senate released its Legislative Branch funding proposal in November, it excluded such measures, leading to the less expansive version of the House measure that made its way into the joint explanatory statement.

Last week, before the Jan. 6 riot, Roll Call asked what these accountability measures would look like in practice. A detailed list of questions — including what types of documents would be made publicly accessible, what that process would look like for requesting information and whether arrest data would be put in a searchable format — went unanswered by Eva Malecki, a Capitol Police spokesperson.

"The Department is reviewing its current means and methods for sharing information, and will consult with the Capitol Police Board and its Congressional Oversight Committees in the House and Senate to meet the expectations of the joint explanatory statement language to share information with the public that is 'consistent with, and does not interfere with,' our critical primary mission to protect and secure the Congress, the legislative process, and the Capitol Complex," Malecki said in a statement Tuesday.

In 2020, the Capitol Police employed around 1,879 sworn officers with a budget of $464 million. That same year, the Austin Police Department had approximately 1,959 sworn officers and $434 million budget.

The force’s jurisdiction includes the Capitol complex and extends to cover Union Station and areas several blocks away from Congress as far north as H Street N.E. and extending south to P Street S.W., according to a 2019 department traffic regulation document. Malecki, the Capitol Police spokesperson, did not provide an answer on the size of the department's jurisdiction in square miles.

The Capitol Police only started posting arrest reports online in late 2018, but only arrests since 2020 are posted on the department’s website, making it hard to decipher such information in proper context.

Todd Ruger contributed to this report.