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Bipartisan anger builds over police failure at Capitol

Congressional leaders vowed Wednesday to fire law enforcement chiefs amid bipartisan anger that a mob was able to easily enter the Capitol building, putting everyone inside in danger.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that the House sergeant-at-arms, Paul Irving, had tendered his resignation, while Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said that he will fire the upper chamber’s counterpart, Michael Stenger, when his party takes over the majority later this month.

Pelosi also called for the resignation of the Capitol Police chief, Steven Sund. Hours later, Sund said that he would step down effective Jan. 16.

Those three positions, along with the architect of the Capitol, comprise the board that oversees the Capitol Police.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called for a “painstaking investigation and thorough review” and said that “significant changes must follow.”

“Yesterday represented a massive failure of institutions, protocols, and planning that are supposed to protect the first branch of our federal government,” McConnell said in a statement. 

Wednesday’s disaster is raising questions about security planning for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, which had been expected to be held outdoors on the Capitol’s west front given tradition as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those plans are at least somewhat in question after violent pro-Trump rioters scaled the walls of the Capitol Wednesday, overwhelming a seemingly unprepared and out-manned police force.

Pelosi and other lawmakers said they viewed Trump as a threat to incite more chaos at the inauguration, which is typically secured by Secret Service rather than the Capitol Police.

“We have 13 days more of Donald Trump to deal with, who is a danger to our country,” Pelosi said at a Thursday press conference. “If there’s anything learned about [Wednesday’s violence], is that we have to be very, very careful. Because these people and their leader, Donald Trump, do not care about the security of people, they don’t care about our democracy, they don’t care about the peaceful transfer of power.” 

A 35-year-old woman participating in the riots was shot by a Capitol Police officer while trying to force her way toward the House chamber and later died. The Capitol Police also announced that one of its officers died Thursday night after he was injured in the riots.

In addition, more than 50 Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police officers were injured after the rioters struck them with metal pipes and chemical irritants. Several officers were hospitalized with serious injuries, according to Sund. 

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who chairs the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee that funds and oversees the Capitol Police, opened an investigation along with House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and said there would be hearings on the matter.

Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), have already laid out some of the details on what went wrong.

They say Capitol Police were not prepared for a large, violent mob, despite overwhelming signals of a threat, including armed protesters showing up at state capitols earlier this year.

“All you had to do was be able to use Reddit,” Murphy said, noting that many offices, including his own, had cautioned their staffs to work from home due to the protests.

The Capitol Police were out in full force as the mob made its way toward the Capitol, but its 1,500-strong unit struggled to hold back a crowd estimated at 10,000 to 20,000.

“These were violent people who were swinging lead pipes at cops,” Ryan said. “They were hell-bent at bum-rushing the cops.”

Capitol Police used low metal barricades typically deployed for peaceful crowds, such as those honoring the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she was lying in state. Those barricades offered no protection Wednesday; at least one rioter stole a barricade to climb into the Capitol.

It wasn’t until Thursday that police installed taller metal fences on the Capitol grounds similar to those erected around the White House in anticipation of protests last year.

The security forces and another 1,000 D.C. police managed to hold the crowd back for an hour and 15 minutes but struggled without reinforcements, which the Capitol Police did not request until two hours after the onslaught began, according to Murphy. 

Murphy also said the police should have had backup units on hand to begin with and that the reliance on National Guard troops was a mistake given how long it takes to mobilize them. Even in the event of an intelligence failure, he said, help should be no more than 30 to 60 minutes away. 

“I think the Capitol Police should have prepositioned more assets, I think they should have requested more help, but we shouldn’t have to wait four hours to get more assistance when the United States Capitol is under attack,” he said. 

The fact that the first three people in the line of succession for the presidency were all in the Capitol amid an insurrection underscored the severe failure by law enforcement.

Murphy dismissed reports that the Defense Department slow-walked the deployment, but it ultimately took four hours to clear the complex.

Linda Robinson, a security expert at the RAND Corporation, said the lack of preparation was shocking.

She called it “absolutely a grievous failure in planning” that police should have seen coming.

The Capitol Police union endorsed the changes at the top, saying that poor leadership undermined the response.

“Our officers are experienced and they are dedicated, but they lacked the immediate backup and equipment needed to control the surging crowd as events quickly spiraled out of control,” union Chairman Gus Papathanasiou said.

“This lack of planning led to the greatest breach of the US Capitol since the War of 1812. This is a failure of leadership at the very top,” he added, citing poor communication between officers and leadership as an ongoing problem.

Members of Congress praised the many officers who fought bravely to protect them but raised concern that the tactics used against armed white protesters storming the Capitol appeared less aggressive than those used against Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

“I mean, just look at the photos reflecting heightened levels of security for Black Lives Matter protesters who overwhelmingly were peaceful protesters for racial justice,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.).

They said they would investigate the circumstances behind viral videos showing police officers opening barricades for the rioters, some of whom took selfies with police.

Daniel Schuman, the policy director of activist group Demand Progress, said the problems with the Capitol Police run deeper. Unlike other defense and security agencies, Schuman said, the Capitol Police lacked many basic oversight mechanisms that often spur reforms and good governance. 

“It’s a legislative branch agency performing an executive function, with none of the mechanisms for public or press oversight,” he said. “They are dedicated to not being accountable and responsive.”

Capitol Police are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and their inspector general reports are not made public. The omnibus funding bill signed in December addressed some of those concerns but has yet to be implemented.

Schuman said the problem isn’t funding. The security budget has grown 10-times faster than the rest of the legislative branch, and with a budget of $516 million is better funded than most municipal police departments.

“They’d be the 11th largest municipal force in the country, and their jurisdiction is two square miles,” Schuman noted, before even counting the local and federal backup available.

Robinson said that the implications of Wednesday’s breach are far-reaching.

“When we’re talking about who’s seeing it around the world, that includes adversaries and adversarial groups. It goes to a national security and homeland security concern,” she said.

To avoid looking vulnerable, she added, federal law enforcement would have to act swiftly to arrest and prosecute those involved in the insurrection. The relatively low number of arrests made Wednesday was a worrying start. 

Both the D.C. police and the FBI have opened tip lines for information about people who participated in the riots.

The pandemic also hangs over the chaos given the fact that mostly maskless marauders were causing havoc throughout the Capitol.

Lawmakers, staff and reporters who were in the House and Senate chambers were all evacuated to secure locations on Capitol Hill under established security protocols. But that meant crowding indoors together for hours — at times with some GOP lawmakers failing to wear masks.

“It’s a concern. But in a moment like that, you do what you have to do,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) acknowledged.

Jones said at one point he felt more worried about the potential spread of COVID-19 with hundreds of members gathered together in the secure space while waiting out the terror threat in the Capitol complex.

When asked if he was concerned it could become a super-spreader event, Jones replied: “I am very worried about that.”

Tags Capitol breach Capitol police Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rosa DeLauro Ruth Bader Ginsburg Tim Ryan Tom Malinowski

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