Dear PERF members, 

It’s hard to believe, given all we have been through the past 10 months, that our country and policing are facing another major crisis. Last Wednesday’s assault on the United States Capitol has left many of us feeling blindsided. Shocked. Sick to our stomachs as we watched the day unfold.

The shock and sadness are magnified by the tragic death of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was assaulted by one of the rioters, and the loss of other lives, including three who died of medical emergencies and one who was shot and killed by police.

  Officer Brian Sicknick

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last few days going over what happened on Wednesday and where we go from here – as a nation and a profession. This is my attempt to make some sense of the senselessness.

Policing in Washington, D.C. Is Unique

To understand Wednesday’s events, you first have to consider how policing in Washington, D.C. is unique.

I remember 30 years ago, when I first came to DC, how special it was to walk around the institutions of our democracy. Back then, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was open to traffic, and getting tours of the White House was relatively easy. In the spring and summer, tourists flocked to the White House fence, then relatively low and modest-looking, to pose for countless pictures.

Over time, the White House became less and less accessible. Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to vehicular traffic. Additional security measures were added after 9/11. This summer, following protests over the police killing of George Floyd, the perimeter around the White House was expanded and fortified even more.

Policing the People’s House

At the U.S. Capitol, however, things have always been different.

It’s not that the Capitol hasn’t been threatened or attacked before. In 1998, two members of the U.S. Capitol Police – Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson – were gunned down by a mentally ill man near the office of the Speaker of the House. On 9/11, it was widely believed that the fourth hijacked plane, which was taken down by passengers in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was heading for the Capitol. And just weeks later, letters containing deadly anthrax were sent to several members of Congress, forcing the closure of part of the complex.  Following each of these incidents, new security measures and improved protocols were established.

But throughout it all, the Capitol has remained open and accessible to the public.

Every day, citizens can still walk into a Senate or House office building (after passing through a security check), go to a hearing room, and watch a Congressional committee meet. They can make a reservation and get a guided tour of the Capitol. They can sit in the Senate and House visitors’ galleries and watch their elected representatives at work. The grounds outside the Capitol are the site of frequent demonstrations. And when it snows, children sled down the West Front.

The Capitol is often referred to as the People’s House.  And its openness is a symbol of our freedom. Achieving openness and security has always been a difficult balancing act, but it is what sets our country and the policing profession apart.

A Failure of Imagination, Intelligence-Gathering, and Planning

Sadly, those ideals of freedom and openness were shattered on Wednesday when a mob burst into the Capitol and desecrated the building. In the process, they tried to undermine our democracy as well.

Make no mistake about it. This was not a First Amendment rally for the police to safeguard, as they do dozens of times each year on the Capitol grounds. It was an attempted insurrection designed to overturn the results of a Presidential election.  

One of the challenges for the police in these types of situations is how quickly a violent confrontation can occur. On Wednesday, it took  only a matter of minutes for the mob to break through security lines, attack police officers, and begin smashing windows and breaching doors to enter the building. Outside of the British occupation during the War of 1812, this type of mass assault on our legislative house has never happened before.

Wednesday was not just a massive security failure. It was a failure of imagination, intelligence gathering, and planning as well. But it was also a shining example of the courage and heroism of individual police officers – badly outnumbered, under-resourced and under attack – who managed to protect those who were carrying out the people’s business.

Two Critical Points in Time

As after-action reports on this incident are prepared, I think two key points in time will be highlighted.

The first is the weeks and days and even hours in the run-up to the event. It seems clear that officials underestimated the size and intentions of the crowd. They should have had a better sense of how many people were coming to DC, based on the number of tour buses that had been booked, hotel occupancy rates, and other indicators. And a quick look at the television that morning would have revealed the huge throng that had gathered for a rally near the White House.

Also, what did planners know about possible threats, and what some of the attendees were planning to do? Much of their rhetoric – about smuggling guns into DC and storming the Capitol – was publicly available for weeks on websites, chat rooms and social media apps. All of that intelligence should have informed a more robust operational plan and a swifter response to changing conditions.

I suspect planners may have fallen into the trap of thinking that the crowd, while passionate about their cause, would remain peaceful.  I wonder if there was a form of implicit bias at work here – a feeling that because the people approaching the Capitol were supporters of the President and were supposedly pro-law enforcement, they would respect the police and comply with their orders. That is a question that must be explored.

Another key shortcoming seemed to be the failure to enlist other partners ahead of time. This was surprising because in the years since 9/11, the relationships and coordination among the dozens of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the Washington, D.C. region have improved dramatically. For other major events at the Capitol – Presidential inaugurations, State of the Union addresses, lying-in-state ceremonies – there is always joint planning up-front and joint operations throughout. Why that didn’t happen in this instance, or didn’t happen soon enough, will need to be explored.

A Valiant Effort to Protect Life

The second key point in time that needs to be examined is what happened after security lines were breached.

This video of the mob first arriving at the Capitol complex shows just what USCP officers were up against. Officers were clearly outnumbered and lacked the resources needed to manage the coming barrage of people.

Rioters discharged chemical irritants at officers. Some wore body armor and wielded metal pipes, flagpoles, and other weapons that were used against officers. Firearms were recovered, and several pipe bombs were later discovered around the Capitol complex and neutralized.

Once the mob got inside, many of the cops ended up in running battles with protesters, severely outnumbered and trying to hold people back from advancing even further. In many cases, officers had to resort to hands-on techniques or batons, while others felt compelled to draw their weapons. As PERF has documented, the lack of reliable and useful less-lethal options remains a problem in policing, and this was on full display at the Capitol.

In the end, Officer Sicknick was killed and more than 50 officers from the USCP and the Metropolitan Police Department were injured in the melee. Several were hospitalized with serious injuries.

But throughout it all, officers managed to fulfill their No. 1 responsibility, and that was to protect lives. Buildings can be repaired. Artwork can be restored. Paperwork can be duplicated. But life is precious and irreplaceable.

Even with chaos and violence engulfing the Capitol, brave and dedicated police officers managed to get every member of Congress (including those in direct line of succession to the Presidency) to safety, along with staff members, reporters on hand to cover the day’s events, and others. In all of the post-mortems on this episode, we should never lose sight of the heroism of the officers who protected hundreds of lives that day.

One woman was shot and killed, and that use of force will be thoroughly investigated. But some people have wondered why the police didn’t use more force on rioters once they got inside the Capitol and why they didn’t make more arrests. With members of Congress and others safe, officers were basically defending a building, not protecting life. What were their choices at this point? It seems unlikely that the use of more serious force would have made the situation any better.

And when police are so outnumbered, as they were at the Capitol, attempting to make mass arrests is impossible. Plus, every arrest would have taken even more officers away from the front line. What’s important now is for police to continue identifying the offenders through photos and video, and then finding and arresting them.   

Toning Down the Source of the Conflict

Even as the USCP and others look to address the failures of last Wednesday, let’s not forget the real source of this attempted insurrection: the political leaders and others who legitimize violence against our democratic institutions and against the police officers charged with protecting our democracy.

The rhetoric from the President and others has been overheated for weeks following the election. It reached a crescendo at the rally just before the mob marched up Pennsylvania Avenue and attacked the Capitol.

This was one issue that was not anticipated, or at least was underestimated: the impact that a sitting President could have on a mob that was already angry. That was something that police have never faced before – a volatile and dangerous accelerant for this crowd.

Of course, we shouldn’t try to explain away the behavior of the people who destroyed property and fought with and seriously injured police officers. They are criminals, and they need to be held accountable. But their aggression and violence originated with, and was stoked by, the rhetoric of people seeking to undermine our democratic norms.

That’s why it’s past time for everyone – from the President on down – to turn down the volume and tone down the rhetoric. Voices of reason, calm, and truth are what’s needed to quell angry mobs.

An Opportunity to Learn

Over the past year, police agencies across the country have faced enormous challenges in managing demonstrations. Many of these protests have been large, and most have remained peaceful. But some have turned violent, often very quickly and unexpectedly. The strategies that have been used in the past now seem outdated and ineffective. Violent protests and the police response to them need to be studied, and new approaches developed.   

Wednesday’s episode at the U.S. Capitol provides another opportunity for “Monday morning quarterbacking.”  

There is plenty to examine – planning, intelligence-gathering, mutual aid, less-lethal options, officer safety, and more. But like all after-actions, the purpose should be not to find fault or assess blame. It should be to uncover important lessons and implement needed changes so that this type of episode never happens again. Just as the Boston Marathon bombing changed how agencies police many sporting events, how will the assault on the U.S. Capitol change the way agencies manage demonstrations around public buildings? Every agency should be looking at Wednesday’s incident and trying to figure out what they could do differently and better.

One final thought: When all is said and done, I sincerely hope Congress avoids one temptation, and that is to turn the People’s House into a closed fortress. Some additional security measures will certainly be needed. But if they do turn it into a fortress, then Wednesday’s mob will have notched an unfortunate blow to our democracy.

Thank you for all you do.