U.S. Capitol Police on High Alert to Protect Congress and Democracy

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Capitol police
U.S. Capitol Police officers salute the casket of officer William Evans, April 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Evans was killed in the line of duty when a man deliberately rammed a car into a barricade outside the U.S. Capitol April 2, 2021. pool/Getty Images

On Jan. 6, 2021, a violent mob of supporters of twice-impeached former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the ceremonial counting of electoral votes in an election that Trump had lost. The difficult and dangerous job of protecting the building that's a symbol of U.S. democracy, as well as the members of Congress inside it, largely fell to a law enforcement agency that many Americans may not have even known existed.

The United States Capitol Police (USCP) might not be as well-known as the FBI and the Secret Service, and there's never been a TV series based upon its exploits. Nevertheless, the agency, which has more than 2,300 officers and civilian employees and a budget of approximately $460 million, is tasked with what experts say is one of the most difficult, complicated and challenging jobs in law enforcement. Its mission is to safeguard legislators, staff members, visitors and the buildings in the Capitol complex from risks ranging from routine crime and disruptions to acts of terrorism.

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A Solemn and Dangerous Duty

It can be dangerous work. Over the years, seven USCP officers have died in the line of duty, according to the agency's website. In the Jan. 6. attack alone, 73 USCP officers suffered injuries. One USCP officer involved in the Capitol defense also later died of natural causes, according to the Associated Press, while one other has died by suicide, according to Congressional testimony.

The USCP is preparing for yet another difficult challenge Sept. 18, as a rally in support of jailed suspects from the Jan. 6 attack is expected to draw 700 protesters to the Capitol grounds, according to National Public Radio.

Capitol police
Invaders clash with U.S. Capitol Police while trying to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Preparations by the Capitol Police for the event include installing a temporary fence around the Capitol. Additionally, the Capitol Police board has issued an emergency declaration, which allows the agency to deputize law enforcement officers from other agencies to assist in protecting the complex. A week before the rally, USCP was seen installing robotic cameras in areas around the Capitol, according to WUSA9.

"We are here to protect everyone's First Amendment right to peacefully protest," USCP's new chief, J. Thomas Manger, said in a Sept. 13 news release." I urge anyone who is thinking about causing trouble to stay home. We will enforce the law and not tolerate violence."

The Capitol Police also already has requested help from the D.C. National Guard, CNN reports. Additionally, the entire Washington, D.C., police force has been called to work on the 18th and will be available to assist if needed, according to the Washington Post.

In an email, a USCP public information officer told HowStuffWorks that more updates on preparations were likely to be available by the end of the week. USCP said the application for the Saturday protest, which might shed light upon what the agency is preparing for, is not public record.

It's the latest challenge for an agency that was created by Congress back in 1828, after members were alarmed to discover that the fence around the Capitol had been breached by someone who brought in cattle to graze on the building's lawn. (Prior to that, the building had been guarded at night by a lone watchman, who had no legal authority, and by a detachment of U.S. Marines deployed by President James Monroe in 1823.) Originally, the force had just four officers. In 1841, the government's Architect of Public Buildings described their duties as including keeping away "vagrants, disorderly persons, and boys" from the Capitol, in addition to escorting visitors and sweeping and scouring the Capitol rotunda.

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What Are the Duties of the USCP?

Obviously, a lot has changed since then. Today, USCP's duties are far-ranging, explains Dr. Frank Straub. He's director of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the National Police Foundation, and draws upon 30 years of federal and local law enforcement experience, including protecting diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia, and serving as deputy commissioner of training for the New York City Police Department.

"You have the protection of the physical structures, and of all the women and men who serve in Congress," Straub says. That means safeguarding a 270-acre (109-hectare) area that includes the U.S. Capitol, a half-dozen Senate and House office buildings, and the Library of Congress, in addition to a network of tunnels and a subway system beneath the surface.

Capitol police
USCP officers salute during the procession for U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Sicknick was killed in the line of duty during the Jan. 6 riot.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images

"If someone is getting threats or being stalked, you need to have threat assessments done," Straub says. "Then you have the normal policing duties, crimes that occur on Capitol grounds."

In addition, there are special events at the complex, with national and international dignitaries, and an unending stream of government officials and private-sector individuals who come to the Capitol complex to testify in hearings. USCP helps to safeguard of all those potential targets of crime or terrorism as well, whether they're actually watching over them or coordinating with other security details, Straub explains.

The Capitol Police also has to watch out for the safety of throngs of ordinary sightseers who come to the Capitol complex — pre-pandemic, some 15,000 to 20,000 visitors each day — and deal with the never-ending assortment of demonstrations by people who want to get the attention of Congress.

The vast majority of those protesters are peaceful, Straub explains.

"With any protest that the police are involved in, your first goal is to afford those people who are participating their Constitutional right to be heard, their First Amendment rights on a given issue," Straub says. "The section piece is that you want to make sure that those individuals are safe, if they're marching and crossing streets. You also make sure that the broader community is also safe and not adversely impacted by the protests — people in Congress and their staffs, the property in the area, and also the neighborhoods around the Capitol, which also have the right to be protected. And you want to make sure that the officers themselves are protected and safe as well."

For that reason, USCP requires groups to obtain permits to protest on the U.S. Capitol grounds, and only allows them to stage demonstrations in designated areas. Most protesters don't seem to have a problem with complying with those rules, but it's still necessary to allocate officers and resources to making sure everything goes smoothly — a job at which experts say the Capitol Police generally excel. "They're almost non-events," Straub says. "They happen frequently and go well."

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Democracy: A History of Violence

The problem, though, is that not everybody is content to make their point peacefully. The rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 weren't the first who've crossed the line and become violent.

In March 1954, for example, four Puerto Rican nationalist terrorists entered the House visitor's gallery and opened fire with handguns, wounding five Congress members, including Rep. Alvin Bentley, R-Mich., who was shot in the chest. In 1998, a gunman shot two Capitol police officers to death inside the Capitol before being subdued. In 2017, two Capitol Police members were injured while protecting the Republican congressional baseball team from another gunman who wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.

Other attackers have staged bombings, such as the former Harvard professor who planted three sticks of dynamite in the Senate reception room in 1915, and the Weather Underground, which set off a bomb in a Senate bathroom in 1971. Another group detonated a bomb in the Capitol's north wing in 1983. Fortunately, none of those attacks caused any injuries or deaths.

Capitol police
U.S. Capitol Police patrol before the start of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Even as they perform their routine array of responsibilities, USCP simultaneously has to be vigilant against extremist threats.

"That's the difficulty of their job," explains Kevin Robinson, an instructor and lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University and a 36-year law enforcement veteran, including 13 years as assistant police chief in Phoenix. "Because they deal with protests with regularity, 365 days a year, they're good at it. But when you put somebody in the mix whose idea of protest is to set off a bomb or harm or disrupt our system of government, that's even more difficult."

It's a problem that's become more acute in recent years, as extremist groups have become more violent — and more organized. "The officers and the Capitol on Jan. 6 were in shock that this was happening, that people would be attacking them with such a level of vitriol and aggression," Straub says. "They were really trying to get through the perimeter and invade the Capitol, to try to disrupt the vote. That was a shock to the system."

"Until then I had never seen anyone physically assault Capitol Police or MPD [D.C. Metropolitan Police Department], let alone witness mass assaults being perpetrated on law enforcement officers," USCP officer Harry Dunn later told a Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

Straub predicts a much more robust police presence at the Capitol this weekend. "There's a realization that it's much easier to gear down that it is to gear up," he says. "You want to have resources at the Capitol already staged and ready to go."

In the event that a threat emerges, "the minute that it starts to spin and become violent, you want to suppress that violence and keep it under control," Straub says.

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