Capitol Police Board — the structural flaw in leadership

Capitol Police Board — the structural flaw in leadership
© Getty Images

In the wake of the violent riots that overtook the U.S. Capitol, many are not only questioning how this could have happened but also why the U.S. Capitol Police did not seem prepared or able to respond to that massive and dangerous threat. 

The Capitol Police, established in 1828, is a federal law enforcement agency with primary jurisdiction in and around the Capitol. Its prime mission is to protect Congress, including the members, employees, the grounds and visitors, so it can execute its constitutional and legislative responsibilities. To do so, the Capitol Police operate like a police department with the full range of police services including patrol, detectives, dignitary protection, K-9 and special response teams.

On any given year or day, the Capitol Police manage and monitor hundreds, if not thousands, of events and protests ranging from large planned events, such as the inauguration, to small impromptu events. The Capitol Police have also had their share of threats and attacks. This includes the protests during the recent Supreme Court hearing of Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettSupreme Court low on political standing Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Are COVID-19 vaccine mandates a strategy to end the pandemic? MORE, or when arrests were made or back in 1988, when shootings left two dead and two wounded at the Capitol. 

ADVERTISEMENT

This is a department used to handling events and different levels of violence. The negligent preparedness seemed odd considering the ample intelligence and social media warnings about the protests against certifying the election and the potential of violence that both the FBI and even the New York Police Department (NYPD) allegedly passed information about to the Capitol Police.

So why were the Capitol Police apparently so unprepared and unable to respond to this threat? A recent interview from former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund may shed some light on one of the major fundamental flaws with the organizational structure of the Capitol Police.  

Sund, who resigned the day after the attacks, said he had been concerned that the protest planned for Jan. 6 would be bigger than anticipated. Yet when he asked House and Senate security officials, the respective sergeant at arms, for backup from the National Guard, Sund said they told him they were not “comfortable with the optics.”

The House and Senate sergeant at arms positions are political positions as they are elected or selected by the members in their respective chambers. Their official duties have them serving as the protocol and chief law enforcement officers and are the principal administrative manager for most support services in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Historically, the sergeant at arms positions were meant to police the Congressional members, which included rounding them up for votes and, if necessary, forcing them to come to a vote. This is where their law enforcement status comes from.

So how were these political positions able to overrule or interfere with the law enforcement and security decision of the Capitol police chief?

ADVERTISEMENT

After Capitol Police were formed, coordination between the sergeant at arms and Capitol Police became necessary. That planning came from the Capitol Police Board. The makeup of the Capitol Police Board is the sergeant at arms of the House of Representatives, the sergeant at arms and doorkeeper of the Senate and the Architect of the Capitol. The chairmanship alternates annually between the House and Senate sergeants at arms. The chief of the Capitol Police serves in an ex-officio, non-voting capacity, meaning the chief of the Capitol Police has to answer to this board and take direction from it without the ability to overrule it. Other than the chief of the Capitol Police, the rest of the board may not have any law enforcement or security experience.  

What that has created is an oversight board that tends to be more politically focused than public safety focused. Sund said he implored for help five more times as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.

Now both the House and Senate sergeant at arms have resigned over the handling of the riots, yet other civilians, none with law enforcement or security experience, have taken over in those roles in an acting position. They continue to have oversight and control of the Capitol Police while being run by an acting chief who continues to act in an advisory role.    

This lack of preparedness for the massive protests and riots that followed clearly implicated the Capitol Police for its failure to be ready for this level of violence. But that preparedness can not occur if the Capitol Police cannot make security decisions and is subservient to potential political decisions.  

The US Capitol Police Labor Committee, which represents Capitol Police Officers acknowledged that despite being experienced, the Capitol police officers didn’t have the proper backup or equipment needed to control the escalating crowd.

This can be traced directly to decisions made by the civilian-led Capitol Police Board and a structural dynamic that makes public safety subservient to political considerations.

Donald J. Mihalek is a retired senior Secret Service Regional Training, tactics and firearms instructor. He also serves as the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.