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Law enforcement officials across the U.S. shocked by police failure to stop Capitol invasion

Ex-Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said police shouldn't have been surprised by the actions of pro-Trump protesters given the heated rhetoric of 2020.
Image: Trump Supporters Hold \"Stop The Steal\" Rally In DC Amid Ratification Of Presidential Election
A large group of pro-Trump protesters stands on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol after storming its grounds on Wednesday.Jon Cherry / Getty Images

Law enforcement officials across the country expressed shock over the chaos at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, with some saying police were "entirely unprepared" and others calling the response "embarrassing."

Many said it was the failure of the Capitol Police to prevent the physical invasion of the building by pro-Trump rioters that concerned them most.

Carmen Best, who was chief of the Seattle police from 2018 to September and is now an NBC News contributor, said that, like many other Americans, she watched the events at the Capitol unfold on television.

"I was wondering, where were the cops? If they don't get there soon, what else could transpire? It felt like a very long time, and I'm sure millions of people were also watching and thinking the same thing," Best said.

While she said she did not want to be overly critical of the Capitol Police, given that facts were still coming to light, she said the response "took way too long."

A senior law enforcement official with decades of experience handling high-profile security events at a major-city police department raised national security concerns in light of the breaches of senior congressional leaders' offices.

The official wondered what documents were exposed, what computers were unlocked and what phone numbers were out in the open when rioters entered the offices. The official was also concerned that foreign intelligence officers could have been mixed in with the crowd.

Many officials who spoke to NBC News condemned decisions made by supervisory officers when it came to preparation.

Others wondered about levels of staffing at the Capitol, given that not only was a protest scheduled Wednesday, but so was the counting of the Electoral College vote. They said it appeared that the Capitol Police were completely understaffed.

In questioning staffing, Best noted the heated rhetoric around the election and recent events like mass social justice protests and allegations that "militia" members plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"It all paints a picture and sets a tone for what is likely to occur. It's all about the staffing. Given what we've seen over the last several months, it shouldn't shock people," she said. "If you think that large numbers of people could show up and potentially engage in violence or property damage, you staff up."

Another senior law enforcement official from a major department, who has managed protests and intelligence, noted that no SWAT or other specialized units were in front of the Capitol before the mob's arrival that would have been trained to stop and shut down the effort to storm the building. The official suggested that there had been an intelligence failure.

"How did they not get wind of this?" the official asked. The official said that social media should have been combed for any clues to the group's movements and intentions and that the rally should have been monitored.

Image: Trump supporters rally
A group of pro-Trump protesters on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.Jon Cherry / Getty Images

"The number-one job of police commanders," the official said, "is to make sure officers are safe, and today that didn't happen.

"This was definitely a planning error. Don't blame the guy outside the door."

The officials questioned the lack of physical barricades and security surrounding the Capitol, particularly in light of the coming inaugural of President-elect Joe Biden. They wondered why natural targets like the spectator stands and speaker towers erected for the inaugural were not secured.

And some wondered why it took so long for law enforcement reinforcements to be called in to take control of the situation. Police officers were assaulted and tear gas and sprays were used against them, and yet few arrests were made. It took hours for buses of officers to arrive and make arrests, and most of the front-line officers initially had no riot or protective gear.

They also noted the contrast between the police response in Washington to the responses to protests over the death of George Floyd last summer.

The law enforcement officials asked to remain anonymous because they do not want to be seen as criticizing another agency, not knowing the totality of the Capitol Police's circumstances.

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While order had been restored Wednesday night, police said they are not hopeful that this will be the last violent incident.

"I predict this is going to get worse," one law enforcement official said, adding that extremist groups of any kind will feel empowered that they can overrun what the official called one of the most sacred symbols of American democracy.

The Capitol Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.