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Capitol Police faced equipment shortage during Jan. 6 attack

Rioters in many cases had more, and better, protective equipment than the officers they were fighting

A Capitol Police officer who fought off rioters for hours in a medieval-style battle at the Capitol on Jan. 6 returned home ready to crash. But before bed, the officer had to shower off all the chemical irritants the embattled officers were assaulted with that day.

“My body was burning,” the officer said. “The parts of your body that were covered with clothes are now getting this mace water all over you. You have to shower. Your body burns. You lay in bed and you’re just on fire all over.”

Three Capitol Police officers talked to CQ Roll Call under the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the department’s failures regarding equipment for Jan. 6, when hundreds of pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in a violent attempt to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election. All three are veteran officers with at least five years of experience each.

Most officers who fought that day did so without helmets, face shields or gas masks that would have better protected them from chemical irritants and blunt force imposed by the rioters. And some of the Capitol Police officers who were properly equipped with helmets and gas masks did not have them on their person when the insurrection took place.

In response to a list of questions about equipment, the Capitol Police said, “USCP officers are equipped with batons and OC spray,” the latter referring to oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray.

That equipment combination was of little use for the second officer, who said they didn’t use their pepper spray because it was ineffective when facing an enormous crowd of rioters. “You can only hit somebody so many times with a baton before you realize it’s not working, or spray them with a little can of pepper spray. … What the hell is two sprays going to do against these people,” the officer said.

The day before the insurrection, officers were directed to pick up helmets from the department’s equipment office. The first officer, assigned to a riot control group known as a Civil Disturbance Unit (CDU) soft squad for Jan. 6, was hassled by those handling equipment distribution over whether the new helmet was actually needed and had to negotiate to obtain it in preparation for the next day. 

“It was still very much like, ‘not everyone’s getting one,’” the first officer said, adding that most officers who responded to the riot lacked a helmet and a gas mask. 

The department’s official timeline of events leading up to and including the Capitol attack, obtained by CQ Roll Call, notes that new CDU helmets were issued to three soft platoons — which included around 120 officers — but doesn’t mention the difficult time some officers had in obtaining those helmets and that some in the CDU soft squad did not have them.

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Ill-fitting helmets

The four CDU hard squads, equipped with riot gear, had issues of their own. In some instances, hard squad officers who had proper gear didn’t wear it during the fighting. Before the mob arrived at the Capitol, at least one CDU hard platoon — around 40 officers — was told by a supervisor to leave all its protective gear on a bus on the West Front and patrol without it.

Many of those on the hard squad who wore protective gear during the melee had old, ill-fitting helmets with crumbling padding that were at least a decade old, officers said.

In past years, officers had to return their gas masks and helmets to the department so the younger CDU officers could use them. Officers had been asking for gas masks and helmets for at least three years prior to the insurrection.

“Problem was that all of our gear was expired. The helmets, basically the padding on the inside was gone. I mean, picture putting on like a football helmet from 1985 and going out and playing football in that thing,” the second officer said. “It’s basically a piece of plastic over your head that if you get hit, there’s no padding in it. It’s all dry rotted. It’s fallen out. You’re toast.”

The officer added that they saw CDU hard squad officers fighting with helmets that were too big.

“Their helmets, they had the chin strap buckle, but it’s two sizes too big. So all of a sudden the helmet’s down to here. They can’t see anything, you know, all over the place,” the officer said.

Around 12:30 p.m. at the West Front, rioters told police they were going to take over the Capitol. Officers were surprised by the gear rioters were equipped with, such as helmets and tactical vests.

“It looked like military coming at you,” the second officer said as police units faced thousands of rioters. 

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

That officer and the group they were part of, a CDU soft squad unit, didn’t have robust protective equipment for the riot.

 “Looking back on it, I have a bicycle helmet in my locker,” the officer said. “If I was able to foresee what was coming, I probably would have grabbed my bicycle helmet out of my locker and wore that over there. Looking like an idiot, but it would have saved me at some points.”

The outnumbered officers were able to arrest some of the mob early on. But as the fighting intensified, the officers focused on keeping rioters from harming those in the Capitol. Eventually, canine officers and Metropolitan Police Department officers arrived to assist.

“I probably got sprayed 15 to 20 times between bear spray, pepper spray, WD-40. Getting hit with things thrown through the air,” the officer said. “You had apples flying, frozen bottles of water, rebar, tools. How more people weren’t seriously injured, I have no idea.”

A routine emerged when officers got hit with irritants.

“You would get sprayed and you would run off the line 10 feet [where] there were maybe two cases of water,” the officer said. “You take a little bit of water and wash your face with it until you can see again, turn around, go back up to the line and start fighting again.”

The department’s official timeline shows that the final CDU plan “indicates that officers will not independently employ force without command authorization unless exigent circumstances justify immediate action” and that “projectiles will not be fired indiscriminately into crowds.”

The lack of proper equipment provided that day suggests the force did not expect a large number of armed rioters, despite advance warning that armed protestors were targeting Congress and could become violent.

A need for grenadiers

In March, Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton recommended the department increase its number of less lethal weapon systems, explore additional less lethal options and train and certify more CDU grenadiers. 

Capitol Police grenadiers, who are trained and equipped to use less lethal munitions, were in short supply that day, a void the Metropolitan Police Department filled.

“We had maybe four [grenadiers] above us overlooking this giant crowd,” the officer said. “MPD showed up and they just started raining hell down on everybody. They had the stun grenades. They had giant canisters of Sabre red OC spray.”

The Capitol Police did not answer a question from CQ Roll Call about how many department grenadiers were on duty that day.

An initial draft of the force’s CDU operational plan proposed deploying eight grenadiers, two for each hard platoon. The final CDU operational plan, according to the timeline, includes the use of less lethal munitions, such as pepper ball launcher systems and FN-303, by grenadiers. The total number of grenadiers is not evident in the final document.

As MPD deployed stun grenades and large tanks of OC spray were used to control violent crowds, many Capitol Police officers — not equipped with gas masks or face shields — were getting hit with the OC spray. Meanwhile, a lot of the insurrectionists had gear to protect them.

“A lot of people in these groups had better face masks than we did,” the officer said. “We didn’t have any face masks.”

This led to rioters mocking the police.

“So you would hit them with this stuff, and they would laugh at you. I remember at one point them saying ‘Dude, we have gear. They’re hurting their own officers.’ And to a certain extent it was true … And we were eating it because we didn’t have the face masks on.”

[Short-staffed and overworked: Capitol Police struggle after months of trauma]

Exactly why the Capitol Police did not have adequate gear on Jan. 6 is unclear. At a hearing in February, Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., asked former Chief Steven Sund if the Congress met his request for salaries and operating expenses in every fiscal year.

Sund, who was chief since 2019, replied, “Yes, sir.” For fiscal 2021, the Capitol Police department received a boost of more than $50 million over the previous year’s funding for a total budget of $515.5 million. The House this week will consider a $1.9 billion supplemental security appropriations bill to address concerns brought up by the Jan. 6 attack.

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

Officers who fought that day risked their lives to ensure members of Congress were safe and able to certify the Electoral College results.

“I did my job that day. I protected Congress. I protected the legislative process. Regardless of what I was hit with,” the third officer said. “Regardless of what I was called that day. I did my job.”

More than 80 Capitol Police officers were injured during an insurrection for which they were not properly equipped, and that falls on management, the officer said.

“That’s what hurts us the most, is to see very good officers now sitting at home with head injuries because the department didn’t do what we asked them for years,” the officer said.

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