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There's a history of garbled law enforcement communication during threats to the Capitol

From 9/11 to a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn, communication issues between Capitol Police and other law enforcement have hindered threat response before.
Image: Capitol police
Two police officers stand at a U.S. Capitol doorway on Oct. 24, 2019.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file

Congress is working to answer questions about why the Capitol Police were overrun by the violent mob that stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, when at least 60 officers were injured, more than a dozen hospitalized and one later died. Among those questions is why reinforcements from the National Guard and other agencies were not brought in sooner. But this is not the first time communication issues between the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies have hindered a threat response in the nation’s capital.

With a roughly 2,250-person force, the Capitol Police is one of over two dozen law enforcement agencies located in D.C. Tasked with protecting Congress — its buildings, grounds, visitors, members and employees — it occupies an unusual niche in federal law enforcement.

The force has existed, in the form of at least one officer, since 1800. Though it has been criticized at times, it has also been lauded, as in 2017 when it stopped a shooter who had fired on a congressional baseball practice, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. In 1998, two officers died stopping a shooter who had entered the Capitol. Five have died in the line of duty in the force's more than 200-year history, including Officer Brian Sicknick, who died after being injured "while physically engaging with protesters" on Wednesday.

For much of its existence, it had been a small, semi-professional, even part-time force. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when the Pentagon was struck and the White House and Capitol were targeted, the agency revamped its operations, increased building security and more than doubled its force to its current size. Many of the new emergency-preparedness plans at the Capitol focused on improving communication during crises.

The Sept. 11 attacks had revealed “disarray” in communication between federal agencies, including the Secret Service and Capitol Police, recalled Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., during a 2015 public hearing of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the Capitol Police.

“One Member asked the sergeant-at-arms [part of the three-member board that oversees the Capitol Police], when did the Secret Service call the Capitol Police?” said Lofgren, who is now committee chair, according to a hearing transcript. “When did that call come in? And the answer was, we are still waiting for that call.”

But in 2013, communication problems between federal and local authorities were again blamed for complicating the response to the deadly shooting at Washington Navy Yard.

A half-dozen other federal, military and local police agencies responded, but missing from the fray was a tactical response team from the Capitol Police, stationed just blocks away.

A Capitol Police supervisor had recalled the team from responding, a decision that triggered controversy and a review by the Capitol Police board. According to the report, the squad was stuck in traffic and unable to reach the command post, only to be recalled later in light of possible threats at the Capitol and no further requests for assistance from the scene.

In 2015, after a man landed a gyrocopter on the front lawn of the Capitol, Congress brought the chief of the Capitol Police in front of the Committee on House Administration. In a rare public hearing appearance, Chief Kim Dine answered questions about why the police were unaware of the threat while the craft was in the air and did not act until it had landed.

Two years before the incident, the Capitol Police and Secret Service had investigated the man, Douglas Hughes, after learning he planned to fly a “single seat aircraft onto the grounds of the Capitol or the White House,” according to a congressional report on the incident. After the Secret Service conducted several interviews and determined Hughes was not a threat, closing its investigation, Capitol Police — who were “relying heavily” on Secret Service information — closed its, as well.

Dine told legislators the Capitol Police were not notified of the gyrocopter until it landed, though nearby Secret Service and U.S. Park Police officers spotted the flight minutes before it touched down. The Capitol Police also received an email question from a reporter roughly 20 minutes before the landing, asking if Hughes and his flight had been authorized. Though provided with a link to his livestream, officers were unable to get it to load immediately, according to a House report on the incident, and by the time they began to respond, the gyrocopter was landing.

At that 2015 hearing, Lofgren suggested that communication between the law enforcement agencies needed to have a protocol so such issues would be avoided.

The Capitol Police’s inspector general told the same committee in 2018 that the agency was making “solid, steady progress” on the majority of its biggest management and performance challenges, including protecting and securing the Capitol complex and strengthening cybersecurity strategies to address increasing threats.


On Wednesday, when thousands of violent rioters approached the Capitol, Capitol Police — along with Washington Metropolitan Police officers there to assist them — were overwhelmed. They held off the mob for more than an hour before the building was breached, said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs the House Legislative Branch Subcommittee, on Thursday.

Now Congress wants answers on how the mob was allowed to get close to the Capitol at all. Among Ryan’s questions are why it took so long for backup from the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies to arrive and how the Capitol Police agency so underestimated the number of people it would need to keep the Capitol secure.

Other federal law enforcement officials told NBC News on Thursday they watched rioters make their way through the Capitol while waiting for a call for help from the Capitol Police, which did not come until after the mob entered the building. The Capitol Police did not respond to a request for comment on the delay.

“One of the shrines of our democracy was breached yesterday,” Ryan said, calling the intelligence and communications failure a “strategic blunder” that left the Capitol Police without a solid plan or adequate reinforcements.


The Capitol Police began with a lone watchman named John Golding in 1800, according to its website. Officially established in 1828, the department was largely a part-time force, with many positions filled by college and law students hired through lawmakers’ patronage up until 1971, according to the Senate historian’s office. A bombing at the Capitol that year, and another in 1983, led to increased security. But it wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks that the Capitol Police force was vastly expanded and security measures at the building dramatically enhanced, including upgrading communications and focusing on emergency preparedness.

Officers handle all the day-to-day security operations of people coming in and out of the Capitol building and grounds. They are also responsible for providing security to members of Congress. While they frequently make arrests during protests at the Capitol complex, they’re not often in the national spotlight.

One exception in 2013 involved a controversial car chase in which Capitol Police and Secret Service officers shot a woman 26 times, killing her, after she had driven into a White House checkpoint and then driven toward the Capitol. Four years later, three Capitol Police officers were celebrated for stopping a shooter at a Republican congressional baseball team practice who had wounded Scalise.

The Capitol itself has faced a variety of breaches since President George Washington laid its cornerstone in 1793. British troops set fire to the building during the War of 1812 and bombs went off inside the building in 1915, 1971 and 1983. The building was locked down after a man with a gun entered in 1998 and opened fire. He was subdued by Capitol Police, but two officers died in the shooting. More recently, the building was locked down in 2016 when a man drew a BB gun in the Capitol Visitor Center, leading Capitol Police to shoot and injure him.

The House sergeant-at-arms — who is part of the three-member board that the chief of the Capitol Police reports to, along with his counterpart in the Senate and architect of the Capitol — resigned on Thursday, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked for and received the resignation of the Senate sergeant-at-arms later that day. The two sergeants-at-arms are the chief law enforcement and protocol officers for either side of the Capitol.

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund also announced his resignation. The Capitol Police Officers Union said its members want a change in all the senior command staff of the organization, not just the chief.

“The rank and file of the United States Capitol Police are frustrated and demoralized by the lack of leadership that undermined the response of law enforcement to the violent events at the U.S. Capitol,” the union said in a Thursday statement.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association also condemned Wednesday’s law enforcement leadership, saying in a statement: “The security failures we saw demand accountability on all levels. Although the resignation of high level Capitol Police leadership is a start, it isn’t enough. For too long, the U.S. Capitol Police has suffered, as well as other federal law enforcement agencies, from a lack of leadership at their highest levels.”