Capitol Police leadership vacuum comes at vulnerable time
Inauguration Day looms as security, image questions persist
The Capitol Police department is facing a perilous time with an unsettled leadership, which is leading lawmakers and staffers to fill in the gaps amid the fallout of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on Congress and a continuing, threat-filled environment.
The department is reeling from the deaths of two officers since the riot; the resignations of Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, and the sergeants-at-arms of the Senate and of the House, Michael Stenger and Paul D. Irving, respectively, and multiple investigations into officer conduct during the insurrection.
Sund left his job Friday evening, earlier than his initially announced resignation date of Jan. 16. That left Yogananda Pittman as the acting chief. But Pittman is also facing calls to resign.
During Monday’s pro forma House session, the clerk read a letter announcing the resignation of Irving. Right afterward, Timothy Paul Blodgett was sworn in as his successor. In the Senate, Stenger was replaced on last Thursday on an acting basis by Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms Jennifer Hemingway.
Gus Papathanasiou, the department's union head, called for the resignation of Pittman and of Assistant Chief Chad Thomas. That call has been echoed by House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan, whose panel oversees funding for the department.
“Yes, I do think we need complete change at the top, but we’ve got an immediate job to do,” the Ohio Democrat said on Monday during a late afternoon Zoom press conference. “And I think the interim chief is committed to doing that. And, you know, we've got to move forward with who we have in place right now.”
Throughout Monday, Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki did not respond to requests for comment, and there was little word at all from the department, even in the immediate aftermath of Ryan’s comments.
Then, at 9:16 p.m. EDT, Malecki sent out a statement by Pittman saying the department was working with the families of the downed officers, cooperating with the probes into the Jan. 6 attack and working on security for the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
“The Department is fully engaged with our law enforcement partners throughout the National Capital Region on the Federal, state, and local levels. We have comprehensive, coordinated plans in place to ensure the safety and security of the Congressional community and the upcoming Presidential Inauguration. There will be no public access to the Capitol Grounds during the Inauguration, and the event will go on as scheduled,” Pittman said.
Ryan, House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and colleagues in the Senate have pledged to undertake a full review into what led to the security breach. Both Lofgren and Ryan said that on Jan. 5 — the day before the dangerous mob overtook the Capitol — they were given assurances that there would be no problems during Congress’ joint session to certify Biden's Electoral College victory.
Lofgren has said publicly that she was given false information on the briefing with Sund and SAA. “What I was told was that they had everything under control, that they had called in all of the officers,” Lofgren said on Jan. 7. Sund told the Washington Post on Sunday that his supervisors at the time — Irving and Stenger — turned down requests from him to put the D.C. National Guard on standby days before the Capitol was infiltrated by domestic terrorists.
On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Lofgren and House Appropriations Chairperson Rosa DeLauro met with Pittman and Blodgett to discuss what happened on Jan. 6, according to CNN. Across the Capitol, the Secret Service, Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security will hold a virtual all-senators briefing Tuesday afternoon on inauguration day security.
Lawmakers are expressing concern about the threats.
“The threats we are facing are very specific. I don't want anyone watching at home to think that we're just sort of imagining that things could be bad. They are talking about 4,000 armed patriots to surround the Capitol and prevent any Democrat from going in. And they have published rules of engagement, meaning, when you shoot and when you don't. So, this is an organized group that has a plan. They are committed to doing what they're doing because I think in their minds, you know, they are patriots and they're talking about 1776. And so this is now a contest of wills. We are not negotiating with or reasoning with these people. They have to be prosecuted. They have to be stopped,” Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, told CNN Tuesday morning.
On Jan. 20, when Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President, the Secret Service will take the lead on security. Ryan said he and his colleagues will work to ensure there will be no bureaucratic impediment to delivering support if needed: “Our purposes now are to make sure that there aren't any bureaucratic snafus, any holdups, any delays that, that there is approval already before we even get to an Inauguration Day with as many National Guardsmen and women that we could possibly need.”
That might take some effort. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced he was declaring a state of emergency for the District of Columbia, to help coordinate security postures among agencies who will police the inauguration. Also on Monday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf resigned, injecting even more uncertainty into who will coordinate the situation.
Adding to the situation, the Capitol Police department has an image problem that was present before the attack, and lawmakers and staff are increasingly speaking out in the wake of Jan. 6.
The department has not hesitated to arrest peaceful protesters in the past, including people of color and Catholic nuns and priests protesting treatment of undocumented immigrants in detention centers, and disabled people protesting attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
“I do think there are people within these law enforcement agencies, including the Capitol Police, or even locally, that have biases against people of color that need to be addressed. That prevents them from upholding the duty they were sworn to do,” a senior Democratic staffer who is a person of color told CQ Roll Call.
Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat who is on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and has called for investigations into the domestic terrorist event, said race is absolutely a factor in the way the largely white mob of rioters was treated.
“To be clear, there is no need to speculate how the response would have been different if it were a group of mostly Black people instead of mostly White people scaling the Capitol building, breaking windows, and ravaging the halls of Congress,” the Massachusetts Democrat said on Jan. 7.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.