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Failure to communicate: The Capitol Police leadership gap on Jan. 6

Lack of direction, preparation, according to rank-and-file officers

A Capitol Police officer receives medical treatment after clashes with rioters who disrupted the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021.
A Capitol Police officer receives medical treatment after clashes with rioters who disrupted the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On the morning of Jan. 6, as a group of Capitol Police officers was being briefed on what to expect before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, a captain told them to be on the lookout for a handful of people wanted for crimes from previous Make America Great Again protests.

The captain also discussed the Proud Boys, an extremist group that would play a substantial role in the violent insurrection, and advised that many people in the crowd could be armed.

But when asked what the response should be if the officers did encounter armed protesters, the captain’s reply was useless, according to one officer on duty that day.

“He said to ‘take appropriate police action,’ which is their catchall for ‘Do whatever you think is right’ or ‘We don’t know what to do.’ ‘It’s going to depend on the circumstances, but take appropriate police action,’” the officer told CQ Roll Call. “That scared me.”

When the captain did not elaborate, the officer interpreted that as “That’s the shut-up: ‘Take appropriate police action.’ Like, what does that mean in terms of thousands of people with guns at the Capitol?”

In an emailed statement, the Capitol Police said: “All USCP officers participate in routine police training about handling armed individuals.” But very little prepared them for Jan. 6.

More than 10,000 protesters marched on the Capitol that day, and approximately 800 of them breached the seat of government to disrupt the joint session of Congress assembled to certify Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Since then, Capitol Police leaders have assured Congress that they had prepared for the worst. But some Capitol Police officers on duty that day point to leadership and communications failures in the days before, and during, the attack that put lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence in danger.

“We needed direction that day,” a second officer said. “We had zero direction.”

Three officers who defended the Capitol that day spoke to CQ Roll Call on the condition of anonymity to discuss what they said were the department’s breakdown in communication.

Among their disclosures:

  • A Capitol Police SWAT team was not scheduled to report until the afternoon of Jan. 6, despite forewarning of potentially grave trouble.
  • Department leaders shied from providing direction after the attack began.
  • Officers with days off were not recalled, and House Division officers who had completed a shift that morning were allowed to go home.

Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, then an assistant chief, has acknowledged to lawmakers that there was a “multitiered” communications failure during the attack.

Commanders on the ground, she said during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, were so overwhelmed with attempting to hold back the mob that they could not give orders to their direct command.

Pittman was quick to note that she ordered the lockdown of the complex. Still, lawmakers wanted to know more.

“I’m hearing a lot of process and a lot of, like, almost explaining why there’s a problem, versus how you’re going to make sure that there is a command center who speaks into the earpieces of the officers and provides direction and leadership,” Jaime Herrera Beutler, the Washington Republican who is the ranking member of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, said during the Feb. 25 hearing.

Officers were also critical of Pittman in the wake of the insurrection. She received an overwhelming vote of no confidence from the union that represents the rank and file. Officers have been critical of Pittman’s role in communicating over the radio during the attack.

“From a bird’s-eye view of the campus, she was watching us getting our asses kicked,” the second officer said. 

The Capitol Police, when asked why Pittman did not provide clear direction to officers from the command center over the radio, said she was in contact with the dignitary protection teams.

“On January 6, Acting Chief Pittman was Assistant Chief for Protective and Intelligence Operations,” the department said. “She was communicating with the dignitary protection teams, which successfully evacuated Members of Congress.”

No clue what was going on

Pittman has said the Capitol Police’s Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division issued a final special assessment on Jan. 3 indicating that militia members, white supremacists and other extremist groups planned to be armed and could be violent on Jan. 6.

President Donald Trump and his supporters saw the joint session as the last chance to overturn the election.

A communication breakdown within the Capitol Police resulted in Pittman and other department leaders not receiving a Jan. 5  FBI warning of “war” at the Capitol. Pittman, who at the time oversaw intelligence for the department, has said it would not have changed the department’s security posture.

“According to our chief [Pittman], regardless of the intel, she wasn’t gonna change her posture. She said that in her hearing. That pissed everyone off,” the second officer said.

“Us and the sergeants who were out with us, we had no clue what was going on,” a third officer said. “So other than it was just gonna be a regular day, we were going to have to come in early and work the demonstration. Nothing different.”

The second officer said they were told to be on the lookout for counterprotesters.

“So we go in,” the officer said. “The only pretty much intel we have that day is watch out for counterdemonstrators. That’s what we’re told.”

All hands

Former Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund has testified that he placed the department on “all hands on deck status” for Jan. 6.

On an average day when Congress is in session, Capitol Police have more than 1,000 officers on duty. For a special event, such as the State of the Union, there would be more than 1,800 officers on duty, Pittman testified in February, noting that number is the department’s “full strength.”

At approximately noon on Jan. 6, Capitol Police had 1,200 officers on duty, according to Pittman’s testimony. She added that by 4 p.m., well into the attack, there were 1,400 officers on the campus. The department is currently staffed with 1,843 officers.

Sund testified that the department activated “approximately seven CDU [Civil Disturbance Unit] platoons (approximately 250 officers), with approximately four platoons being available in ‘hard’ gear — helmets, protective clothing, and shields.” That breaks down to around 35 officers per platoon, and by Sund’s count, there were fewer than 150 Civil Disturbance Unit officers in full gear.

The CDU is a riot control unit. Those in CDU without protective gear are referred to as the CDU soft squad. Pittman has testified that the CDU had 276 officers that day.

The department said this about the differing numbers: “Former Chief Sund’s number was an estimate and not intended to be an exact accounting. The total CDU number (hard and soft platoon) was 276.”

By Pittman’s numbers, that would be around 40 officers per platoon and approximately 160 officers in hard gear.

Regardless, it wasn’t adequate, according to the rank and file. “The chiefs keep saying that it was all hands on deck. That was not the case,” the second officer said.

An entire Containment Emergency Response Team, a SWAT team with highly trained officers, was not scheduled to report until 2:30 p.m, more than an hour after the attack began.

“Why we had a CERT team sitting at home is beyond me, but they were never recalled,” the officer said. The members of the team reported in of their own accord once they saw what was happening, the officer added.

Capt. Carneysha Mendoza, a CDU field force commander, previously testified that she was scheduled to report to work at 3 p.m., but came  in earlier after she became aware of the insurrection.  She endured chemical burns on her face while defending the Capitol. Officers questioned why she wasn’t scheduled to come in earlier.

“You had a CDU commander that responded in — wasn’t here” at the start of the attack, the third officer said of Mendoza. “And she’s great. I have nothing bad to say about her, but she wasn’t here. Why is your CDU commander not here?”

In addition, patrol officers with days off were not recalled to come to work that day, the officers said. The House Division let officers done with their shift that morning go home and pulled officers from the CDU to fill in on non-CDU posts, reducing the numbers of the riot control group. Some officers were never told they were supposed to report to work at 10 a.m. that day rather than the normal start time of 3 p.m.

The Capitol Police did not address specific questions about the SWAT team or Mendoza but issued the following statement regarding staffing that day:

“To cover anticipated demonstrations on January 6, USCP deployed sworn officers and tactical teams on varying shifts to ensure the Capitol Complex was covered 24-hours without having officers work 24-hours straight. The Department also made sure the D.C. National Guard and the Metropolitan Police Department were on standby. USCP had approximately 1,500 officers working on January 6.”

Retreat?

On Jan. 6, as the mob made its way toward the Capitol, many were streaming on cellphones the speech in which Trump urged his supporters to fight. 

The first officer, who made their way to the West Front stage, said they were outnumbered 50-to-1 as they created a police line. Rioters put on gas masks and gloves and began probing the line.

At that point, the officer heard Capitol Police commanders on the radio, unsure of what to do.

“Basically, I was just watching them [rioters] climb the walls and the line is being overrun. And I’m hearing on the radio: ‘We’ve got to think about a tactical retreat here. Somebody should start thinking about what we’re going to do here,’” the officer said. “These are the commanders on the radio.”

The mob eventually made its way past the police line, meaning the commanders were no longer in a position to organize their officers. 

“There was definitely an opportunity there for them to maybe do something, but I just remember hearing, ‘Oh, we’ve got to think about, like, a tactical retreat.’ And then they waited 40 minutes,” the officer said.

Eric Waldow was deputy chief in charge of CDU at the time of the insurrection. In his capacity as the incident commander that day, Waldow should have gotten on the radio as soon as the mob breached the outer perimeter of the Capitol Square and instructed officers on where assets were needed and given orders on what to do, the officers said. 

Instead, Waldow fought the rioters alongside rank-and-file officers. The officers said they respect Waldow for fighting but he should have been providing orders and guidance.

“You had Deputy Chief Waldow out there throwing fists,” the third officer said. “In my opinion, is that where he should be? No, he should be commanding these people.”

Once Waldow physically engaged the rioters, another chief should have gotten on the radio, the officers said.

The Capitol Police did not address a question asking why Waldow engaged in combat instead of instructing officers over the radio. Waldow received a no confidence vote of 64 percent from the union and has circumvented department protocol in the past.

Other leaders such as Sund, the former chief who resigned, and Assistant Chief Chad Thomas should have also stepped up but did not, according to the second officer. The department did not address questions regarding Sund or Thomas. Thomas received a 96 percent no confidence vote from the union.

The first officer, who ended up in the midst of a battle for more than two hours in the lower west terrace archway, said what command leadership there was came from Metro Police Department officers.

“There was an MPD sergeant up on the railing just, like, doing what he could, but to me it’s like, I don’t know where my sergeants were and there’s an MPD sergeant putting himself in the most vulnerable position, you know, taking on this huge responsibility, protecting everybody,” the officer said. “There were also trenchcoat, higher-up MPD commanders in the back directly behind the doorway, telling people, ‘All right, get back up, get in there.’ At one point they asked my friend on Capitol: ‘Hey, have you seen your Capitol commanders?’ ‘No, sir, I don’t know where they are.’”

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