When I walked toward the Capitol on Jan. 6 alongside Donald Trump’s supporters and heard some of them had breached the building ahead, I expected the situation to escalate sharply. I expected police in military gear and a response as aggressive as I’ve come to anticipate covering and observing protests over the past year, where a single water bottle thrown at a cop line can bring a volley of tear gas and percussion grenades in retaliation.
Instead, I easily walked into the Capitol perimeter. At the entrances to the building, there were a few Capitol Police officers helplessly trying to hold a line at the doors, but they were vastly outnumbered. The officers had somehow gotten the doors back closed, but within minutes, rioters were easily pushing past them again. Once I was inside too, I saw no officers at all for a stretch, as rioters plundered and destroyed furniture. When I did, it was even more surreal: They looked as if they were there loitering themselves. Some were equipped with riot gear, others not, but most just stood there and watched. Some rioters stopped to ask them for directions. In one of the only direct interactions I saw, a Capitol officer asked a rioter to put out a cigarette, then walked away.
I’d never seen law enforcement show this level of restraint at any protest, much less a riot. And now we know why. A damning new report by the Capitol Police’s own inspector general, Michael A. Bolton, presented at a Capitol Hill hearing today, portrays a police force that recklessly disregarded intelligence and hobbled its own response at every turn.
With around 140 officers injured, and one dead, there was some passing of the buck in the immediate aftermath of the riot. Republicans were in denial. The former Capitol police chief, Steven Sund, resigned almost immediately. He wrote in a letter, “Perfect hindsight does not change the fact that nothing in our collective experience or our intelligence—including intelligence provided by FBI, Secret Service, DHS, and MPD—indicated that a well-coordinated, armed assault on the Capitol might occur on Jan. 6.” Sund repeated this assertion in testimony in front of a U.S. Senate committee just weeks ago: “None of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred,” he said.
That account stands in direct contrast to the new report, in which Bolton found that Capitol Police leadership dismissed threat assessments and forbid rank-and-file officers from appropriately responding to the threat. The New York Times reviewed a copy of the document and reported that the Capitol Police’s own intelligence warned three days before that “Congress itself is the target on the 6th.” There were warnings about who would be in the crowd: “Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.” Bolton’s report also unearthed pre-insurrection warnings from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which had relayed to the Capitol Police that a map of the Capitol’s tunnel system had turned up on pro-Trump message boards.
But the 104-page report found that rather than ramp up security, the officers on duty were ordered to carry only limited riot-prevention equipment, and not carry stun grenades. Bolton wrote that “heavier less-lethal weapons were not used that day because of orders from leadership.” He added that the unit was “operating at a decreased level of readiness as a result of standards for equipment” that diminished “operational readiness.”
Even without this new report, it was obvious the Capitol Police should have done more. Counter-extremism experts had been ringing the alarm bells for months. Trump’s most fervent supporters had become progressively more radicalized in plain sight. But the report shows just how negligent the Capitol Police brass really was ahead of the riot—which, as we’ve seen through footage and in report after report, nearly proved far more deadly than it ultimately did.
What is new here is the clear picture of just how badly the police leadership failed its own officers, too, the ones I saw bewildered behind the doors and in hallways. Bolton reported that some of the equipment issued to the police was faulty or expired. Some shields “shattered upon impact” because they were improperly stored. Some didn’t have shields at all because they were locked away on a bus. The civil disturbance unit, an apparently unpopular post tasked with containing large crowds, “was consequently required to respond to the crowd without the protection of their riot shields.” One rioter who dragged a Capitol officer down the steps and into the mob to be pummeled was famously quoted as saying, “I fed him to the people.” Now we know who allowed him to be fed upon.
In his prepared remarks today, Bolton told Congress that he and his team “did not design or intend our reports to cast blame on any one individual or group.” But excerpts from the report—which is not yet public—make clear that the Capitol Police’s breakdown enabled the historic riot. The findings recommend deep reforms for the department and its culture, but at least through what’s been reported so far, do not mention one glaring factor in the outcome—namely, who the people were who were assembling, and how very differently this likely would have played out had it involved, say, Black Lives Matter protesters.
Months of reports following the riot have drawn clear, inescapable contrasts between the handling of the Capitol riot and the notorious Lafayette Square incident, among others, a study in police aggressiveness and response. I have no idea what was in the heart of the former police chief or his leadership, but his and others’ actions seem to fit a pattern that any hyphenated American is very familiar with, the chasing of perceived threats and the abandoning of evidence-based policing based on stereotypes, or just plain racism. Not only does that drive a dagger through a community’s trust in law enforcement, but it’s also proven to be an obstacle in hindering actual police work. As much as this new report reveals, it leaves a fuller institutional reckoning with what happened on Jan. 6 for another day.
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