/How police failures let a violent insurrection into the Capitol

How police failures let a violent insurrection into the Capitol

President Donald Trump was still in the midst of an incendiary speech outside the White House last Wednesday when some of his supporters began milling around the front of the U.S. Capitol a mile and a half away.

More followed in waves, their ranks soon multiplying into an angry crowd of thousands who felled the temporary perimeter fencing as if it were made of toothpicks and charged toward the marbled facade.

Over the next 60 minutes, the Capitol Police would fail miserably at its most basic job: preventing rioters from getting inside the building and disrupting the congressmen and women set to confirm the votes of the Electoral College.

Decisions made long before the chaos cast the die for law enforcement’s failures, which played out in several critical moments captured in social media videos and news coverage.

Officers were overwhelmed, their shields ripped from their hands and used against them. They held a line with fencing and their bodies, only to have it breached. They were cornered, brawled with civilians and ended up bloodied. Their hesitancy to use lethal force – whether by design or decisions made on the fly – was exploited by streams of jeering rioters who made their way into the halls of the legislature, where they destroyed federal property and ransacked lawmakers’ offices.

A call for help to the many nearby police forces did not go out until 2 p.m. By then, the rioters had breached gates around the perimeter; the Capitol Police had evacuated the building; and police were deep in hand-to-hand combat with protesters. 

USA TODAY analyzed hours of footage from reporters and police scanner audio, as well as livestreams and videos posted to social media. Coupled with timelines released by the Pentagon and information requests to a half-dozen agencies, the chain of events raise a basic question: How did Capitol Police lose the Capitol?

When the entire story emerges in the coming weeks and months, law enforcement experts who reviewed that footage for USA TODAY say a reckoning may be painful for the forces that allowed the halls of Congress to be breached for the first time since 1814. 

“They’ll have to admit one of two things: Either they’ll have to say that they can’t protect the Capitol, or they’ll have to admit that they gave certain people preferential treatment because they didn’t view them as threats,” said Christopher Chapman, a criminology professor at the City University of New York who spent nearly two decades training state and federal police officers. “And considering we have the most well-trained police force in the world, I doubt it’s the first.”

Shortly after noon, The White House lawn

Nearly halfway into his rambling remarks brimming with lies about a stolen election, Trump called on the thousands spanning the grassy White House Ellipse to walk to the Capitol.

“We’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them  – because you will never take back our country with weakness,” the president said. 

Within minutes, people were tweeting about it from the scene. “President Trump just announced he will lead his tens of thousands of supporters in a march on the Capitol after the speech!!! Best President, EVER,” said one.

Many of his ardent supporters didn’t need that final directive based on evidence on the ground and information that had been widely available to law enforcement – and the public – for days. 

A few hundred supporters were already up against the outermost defensive fence encircling the Capitol complex as Trump spoke, many wearing fatigues and shouting into bullhorns. About two dozen Capitol Police officers appear in videos stationed behind these outer gates, spaced apart, wearing no riot gear.

Much of the crowd had openly planned their attendance on social media sites like Parler, banned by both Google and Apple in the aftermath of the attack. On Facebook, which later banned Trump, comments about “occupy” the Capitol had cropped up, too.

“Everybody knew this was going to happen, even my friends who are photojournalists said they heard people saying ‘We’re going to storm the capitol,’” said Jon Farina, a freelance videographer who covered the events for the left-leaning Status Coup site. Farina was so sure of it he left the White House event early to head to the Capitol for a good vantage point. He witnessed some of the first breaches.

Protesters gather as the U.S. Congress meets to formally ratify Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 Presidential election.

Protesters gather as the U.S. Congress meets to formally ratify Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 Presidential election.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY

The most crucial missteps occurred in the days leading up to the riots, experts said.

With expected violence no secret, Capitol police should have enacted what those in the law enforcement industry call a graded response plan, said criminology professor Ed Maguire. The plan, which should have been well-rehearsed ahead of Wednesday, would have allowed police to keep the officers with protective gear out of sight initially while ensuring they were ready to instantly and seamlessly move to the front lines at the first hint of violence.

“That did not happen here,” said Maguire, director of the Public Safety Innovation lab at Arizona State University. “As far as why it did not happen, I am not sure.”

Monitoring social media sites where these plans were discussed is routine modern-day police work, too. Even medium-sized agencies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment to gather online evidence.

Activists have long pushed back, accusing law enforcement of spying on them via cell phone tower simulators, commonly known as “stingrays,” during protests. Concern about inflaming that debate could have been one factor on Wednesday, experts say. Another the requirement for a search warrant.

“What would you tell the judge? We anticipate they’re going to try to break into the Capitol Building and do what? Make citizen’s arrests? Take hostages?” asked Michael Cherry, president of Cherry Biometrics, a Virginia-based cellphone tracking firm. “Before last week, is a judge going to buy that?”

Law enforcement did not actually have to try that hard to figure things out, though, as former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned in an interview with USA TODAY two days before the siege.

“You didn’t even need to see any classified intelligence,” Hagel said. “All you need to do is read the news and listen to television or radio and hear what President Trump was saying.”

At first, reinforcements did seem to be lining up, as officials responded to the evolving situation. 

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser sought assistance from the district’s National Guard on Dec. 31, according to a timeline released by the Pentagon. On Sunday, Jan. 3, the plan was presented to the president – and approved. 

The next day, the district’s National Guard was activated – but largely to make traffic stops and guard Metro stations away from the Capitol, along with a quick reaction force of 40 standing by at Joint Base Andrews. 

Yet, the National Park Service issued an amended permit that same day to the Women for America First, which organized the “March for Trump,” increasing the expected participants sixfold, from 5,000 to 30,000.

That was Jan. 4, the day the Secretary of the Army also confirmed that Capitol Police had no need for additional help from the Department of Defense, the Pentagon timeline shows. 

Steven Sund, former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, says National Guard backup could have helped hold the line against protesters.

Steven Sund, former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, says National Guard backup could have helped hold the line against protesters.
Caroline Brehman, CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said that, like Bowser, he also had requested that the National Guard be placed on standby only to be thwarted by his bosses. 

Sund, who resigned his post the day after the riot, told The Washington Post that the House and Senate sergeants at arms, both of whom also have resigned, told him they were not comfortable with the optics of declaring an emergency days before the protest. Instead, Sund said they suggested he should informally ask Guard officials to be on alert.

The Pentagon has insisted that there was no request for them to have Guardsmen at the ready as part of a riot contingency plan.

Without many more officers in place or readily available to head a distress call, experts say that even if Capitol Police had called for backup at the moment Trump urged demonstrators to march to the Capitol, it would have been too late.

“Once they engage in physical force these are no longer protesters, these are rioters,” said Lon Bartel, training director for the Arizona-based police training simulator company VirTra. “And your plan needs to be in place.”

The Capitol perimeter falls

SOURCE: Status Coup via Storyful

That critical shift – when a crowd morphs from protesters to violent mob – can come in an instant. At the Capitol last Wednesday, it happened a little before 1 p.m., just as Congress began its joint session. 

On the west side of the Capitol, Trump supporters cut through a mesh fence surrounding the lawn and hopped a concrete wall, part of multiple temporary concentric perimeters put up by law enforcement. Perched atop the wall, a woman in a red Make America Great Again cap, with a California flag draped around her shoulders, screamed “Patriots, go!” into a bullhorn like an overzealous band leader. 

Roughly a dozen yards away, a crowd chanting “USA” overpowered a half-dozen officers as one officer tried, in vain, to sucker punch a man who was tipping over metal gates. 

Police turned to run, working to stay ahead of rioters who began to rush the Capitol. 

Rioters quickly dispensed with the metal barricades; some in flak jackets chanted “this is our house.”

Police retreated to yet another line of gates, feet from where a stage and scaffolding had been erected for the upcoming inauguration.

On the east side of the complex, across from the Supreme Court, similar scenes unfolded as officers began to lose their tenuous hold on the perimeter.

On the House side, bordering Independence Avenue, rioters moved barricades out of their way as if they were opening the gate in a neighbor’s picket fence, comfortable they would be welcomed in. Officers attempted without success to stop them one-by-one. 

The Department of Defense got a sense that things were going awry at 1:05 p.m., when Acting Secretary Christopher C. Miller received “open sourced reports of demonstrator movements to the U.S. Capitol,” according to the Pentagon timeline. 

By then, the building was already surrounded while, inside, the state-by-state confirmation of electoral votes had just begun, and would proceed in alphabetical order.

“The tellers will announce the votes cast by the electors for each state, beginning with Alabama,” said Vice President Mike Pence.

The rest of the world saw it happen in real time, as images of officers radically outnumbered by the crowd began to trickle onto social media and some news outlets. Law enforcement’s level of response stood in stark contrast to June’s Black Lives Matter protests at the Lincoln Memorial on the other side of the mall, where members of the National Guard had lined the steps.

Facing a growing mob on the west side of the Capitol, police detained one man, bringing him to the ground and handcuffing him with zip ties. Another was caught up on the scaffolding prepared for the upcoming inauguration.

A commanding officer directed officers where to stand to hold the line, a standard maneuver from recent demonstrations nationwide. It held for mere seconds until they were overrun again and forced to retreat closer to the Capitol walls.

SOURCE: Status Coup via Storyful; Tyler Baggins via Storyful

Officers in black riot gear arrived, but that didn’t dampen the hostility of the crowd or their expletive-filled rants directed at the cops. “Traitors,” they shouted. “Nazis.”

On ground already stained with blood, rioters continued to challenge police. One hurled an American flag. A brawl ensued.

Joined by officers from Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, Capitol Police reestablished their line behind metal fencing, dragging an injured person to safety with them.

Seconds later the fighting began again. Officers commanded one rioter to back up. He refused and began to raise his arms in the direction of the officers when one punched him. Pepper spray was then used by both sides.

This same line would break a final time a little more than an hour after rioters breached the first gate. 

One screams, “See how fast the cops turn around once they saw the (expletive) numbers game!”

From there, rioters would make it up the Capitol steps and into the building.

Backup would still be hours away.

1:26 – Evacuate the Capitol 

Less than 30 minutes into debate on the House and Senate floors, Capitol Police ordered an evacuation of the complex to begin, according to a Pentagon timeline.

Outside, it was obvious even to those watching from home that the situation was about to combust. On the east side of the building rioters were close to charging the steps of the building. On the west, the situation was even more dire.

Experts say what happened behind the scenes at that point may be more important than what was visible to the public.

“The obvious question when you see something like this is why?” Tamara Herold, an American crime scientist and Director of the Crowd Management Research Council, said after viewing the footage. “What decisions were being made to allow these kinds of things to occur? What directives were the officers in the crowd receiving?”

A few details are known, with more emerging daily, suggesting urgent pleas for help were followed by denials, confusion and red tape. Deployment, the experts emphasized, cannot happen in a rush.

Eight minutes after the evacuation was ordered, Mayor Bowser called Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy asking for additional help, according to the Pentagon timeline. Sund made one of what he told The Post were five requests for backup 15 minutes later. 

Their pleas languished for two hours as officials held meetings and fielded additional calls. 

Police tried in vain to keep protesters off the Capitol steps.

Police tried in vain to keep protesters off the Capitol steps.
Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY

Igor Bobic, a politics reporter at HuffPost, shot video out the window of the Senate chambers. Law enforcement was clearly outnumbered.

“I remember during the George Floyd protests, the Cap police set up a much larger perimeter with many, many more officers lining it,” he tweeted.

Fairfax County, Va., police officials said in a statement to USA TODAY they were ready and mobilized immediately to help Capitol Police officers as soon as they requested assistance. But that call didn’t come until 2 p.m. at which point they dispatched 40 officers.

Montgomery County, Md., police told USA TODAY they already had 53 officers in the downtown area as part of a special event response team but would not disclose when they were dispatched to the Capitol. Arlington County, Va., similarly received the call for mutual aid and sent reinforcements but declined to say when and how many.

In the meantime, members of Congress began making their own distress calls.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, saying the Capitol had been overrun. Hogan authorized the mobilization of the Maryland National Guard and was ready to deploy them to the Capitol.

“However, we were repeatedly denied approval to do so,” Hogan said. After “a little back and forth,” Hogan said, McCarthy – the Army secretary – called about 90 minutes later to approve the request.

Over the course of an hour on Wednesday morning, protesters quickly overwhelmed police, surrounding the Capitol.

Over the course of an hour on Wednesday morning, protesters quickly overwhelmed police, surrounding the Capitol.
Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY

Shortly after 2 p.m. Matt Laslo, the managing editor of the alt-weekly site The News Station who also was reporting from inside the Capitol, shot video on his phone of officers on the east steps writhing in pain, splashing water in their eyes. In other videos and eye-witness accounts, police were sprayed with chemical irritants, in some cases their own – captured by rioters.

Pepper spray and other similar substances are considered weapons and when a suspect reaches for or takes a police officer’s weapon, that is grounds for use of force. However, Bartel, the police trainer, said this was far different than an assailant taking an officer’s taser during a traffic stop – a scenario that has led officers to kill people in shootings later deemed justified.

Bartel believes that Capitol Police officers may have refrained from responding more aggressively because of the size of the crowd.

“There are other people that are there who are being obnoxious, they’re in a place where they should not be and certainly they need to leave, but they are not actually the ones that are using force,” he said. “If I’m an officer and I just open fire in a situation like that, then I risk harming an innocent, meaning someone who wasn’t actually involved in the use of force.”

Chapman, who worked as an undercover investigator for the Department of Homeland Security before he retired in 2006, was more surprised. He wondered how none of the rioters at that point had been shot by police, noting the officers with rifles lining the upper reaches of the building.

“They have snipers on the roof of the Capitol,” he said, adding: “How did all those people even get that far in the first place?”

2:10 p.m. – ‘We lost control’

When it came minutes after the evacuation order, the breach of the Capitol was a multi-front war. Rioters stormed in from multiple sides of the 1.5 million-square-foot complex through just a few of its 658 windows and 850 doorways.

By 2:10 p.m., Laslo reported that he heard an officer over the Capitol Police radio say “we lost control.” Moments later, roughly an hour after Trump called his supporters to march on the Capitol, rioters entered the building.

Having failed at cordoning off the Capitol, officers turned their attention to protecting the people inside and ensuring they made their way out safely. The Senate and House chambers were cleared. In the Senate, the drawn-out debate had only reached the third state, Arizona.

In one of the eerier scenes of the day, captured by the HuffPost reporter at around 2:15 p.m., a lone officer was chased by a mob up the marbled stairs in the Senate side of the building. Baton out, in nothing but shirtsleeves, the officer kept his cool as Doug Jensen, clad in a QAnon tee-shirt, repeatedly challenged him.  

Later identified as Eugene Goodman, the officer led the mob away from an open doorway to the Senate floor – quick thinking that has drawn calls of heroism. Jensen, a 41-year-old from Iowa, would be arrested three days later.

‘Hero’ Capitol Police officer draws rioters away from Senate floor

A Capitol Police officer is being hailed a hero after drawing rioters away from the Senate floor.

USA TODAY, Storyful

As Bowser, Sund and Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee joined another call with McCarthy at 2:22 p.m., the situation outside turned from perilous to deadly.

Pepper spray shot into the crowd was returned in kind. Objects were thrown; flag poles became spears and javelins. 

The rioters carried bats and batons and a pitchfork. They wore helmets and gas masks. Some were so outfitted in tactical gear they were hard to distinguish from on-duty law enforcement.

A few picked up the metal gates intended to keep them out and used them as battering rams. Others grabbed pieces of the bleachers erected for President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing in.

Trump, who aggressively courted police unions during the 2020 election, tweeted for the first time since his speech: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” he wrote. “USA demands the truth!” 

Minutes later, at 2:27 p.m., a video shows a rioter shoving a cop over a wall into a melee below. Another rioter walked up from behind and hurled a fire extinguisher at the back of an officer’s head.

Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, 42, died Thursday from injuries he suffered “while physically engaging with protesters,” police said. According to two law enforcement officials who spoke to the Associated Press, Sicknick was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, although police have not confirmed he is the one pictured in the video.

At 2:30 p.m., Pentagon officials were still debating Bowser and Sund’s request for backup as Capitol Police made arrests inside the building. Mark Jefferson Leffingwell hit an officer in the Senate wing before he was eventually subdued, according to an arrest affidavit.

“When he was deterred from advancing further into the building, Leffingwell punched me repeatedly with a closed fist. I was struck in the helmet that I was wearing and the chest,” the Capitol police officer writes. “Leffingwell spontaneously apologized for striking the officer. When told that the officer who Leffingwell had struck was me, Leffingwell apologized to me for striking me.”  

Ten minutes later, Ashan Benedict, who leads the Washington field division for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told The Associated Press that he and his officers arrived only to find they were outmatched, too.  

“They had apparently more bear spray and pepper spray and chemical munitions than we did,” Benedict said. “We’re coming up with plans to counteract their chemical munitions with some of our own less-than-lethal devices, so these conversations are going on as this chaos is unfolding in front of my eyes.”

Near the Speaker’s Lobby, another drama was playing out. Twenty-five minutes before McCarthy finally agreed that all District of Columbia National Guard forces would be needed to secure the Capitol, Ashli Babbitt led protesters into a hallway, wearing a Trump flag as a cape. 

According to a Washington Post report, Babbitt and others arrived just minutes after lawmakers including Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Rules Committee, had been escorted through the lobby yards away. As Babbitt tried to climb though a barricaded door, a Capitol Police officer shot her in the chest, killing her.

Additional video from reporters and others inside the building show entry doors completely unmanned as rioters tried to break in. One depicts an officer trying to close a velvet rope line in a futile attempt to slow the flood of people entering the building.

A rioter uses railing to bash a door at the Capitol as others stand by filming his attempt to gain access to the building.

A rioter uses railing to bash a door at the Capitol as others stand by filming his attempt to gain access to the building.
Jon Cherry, Getty Images

Photos and videos posted to social media, many from the rioters themselves, captured what they did next: pose for selfies, including with an officer, write menacing notes in lawmakers’ offices, smoke cigarettes and marijuana and drink beer. A man wielding zip-tie handcuffs made it to the Senate floor. 

At 3:04 p.m., roughly an hour after the first rioter entered the Capitol, 1,100 members of the district’s National Guard were mobilized, including more than 300 largely still stationed at traffic and Metro stops around the city. They would not arrive for at least two hours. It would take nearly three more for the building to be declared secure.

Officers were able to hold strong on a few doors – preventing even more rioters from entering – but barely. One intense battle played out at the Main Portico. It was among the entrances officers were able to protect.

SOURCE: Status Coup via Storyful

With bloodied knuckles, they clung to their positions against violent rioters who stripped them of their shields and passed them back to the crowd outside. 

Rioters soon realized their utility, reversing course and using those same shields as weapons against the cops. 

Chanting “heave, ho!” the mob sprayed tear gas into the line of cops before forming a human battering ram, surging forward with the body weight of a few dozen men. 

One officer, pinned against a metal door frame, let out a piercing scream, gasping for breath. A rioter tried to help him before continuing to push forward.

“These people are attacking (the officers) and at the same time they’re like, ‘We love you. Join us. Go home, this is not your fight,’ as they’re beating them,” Farina said.

With rioters inside, police stand down

With hundreds of rioters inside, and lawmakers moved to secret lockdown locations, officers took a hands-off approach. Several lined the Capitol Rotunda as rioters proceeded through, videotaping their progress.

The passivity fuels theories that law enforcement was complicit in the siege.

But Bartel believes that the police had to choose between letting the rioters out of the building and compromising the safety of staff members inside. One video shows officers holding open a door marked with the phrase “murder the media” as rioters were allowed to leave, without handcuffs or arrests. 

“Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor,” Bartel said. “Unfortunately, the reality is sometimes law enforcement is a lose-lose proposition. Either you lose a little or you lose big.”

Chapman rejects that notion, especially in the nation’s capital, where security is consistently tight with multiple law enforcement agencies responsible for keeping both buildings and high-ranking government officials safe every day. In particular, he said, more arrests should’ve been made on the spot, especially where they had protesters corralled inside.

“They could’ve mobilized 50 buses in the matter of 15 minutes and detained them all after they came out,” Chapman said. “It’s not like this is Kalamazoo, Michigan, where protesters show up to a township meeting and everyone’s surprised. But even there, there’s a contingency plan.”

A supporter of President Donald Trump holding an American flag sits at a desk after invading the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. Some wrote menacing notes in lawmakers’ offices and smoked after breaking in.

A supporter of President Donald Trump holding an American flag sits at a desk after invading the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. Some wrote menacing notes in lawmakers’ offices and smoked after breaking in.
SAUL LOEB, AFP via Getty Images

Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney in Washington, acknowledged during a call with reporters Thursday that more rioters should have been arrested, though he said he could not speak for Capitol Police as to why they weren’t. 

“If hundreds of people flooded the Capitol and they were not apprehended or zip-tied … the scenario has made our job difficult,” Sherwin said, adding that investigators now must identify suspects through video footage and seek court orders to obtain cell phone data.

Nearly 100 people have been arrested so far for their roles in the attack and at least 25 people are now under investigation for charges of terrorism. On Sunday, top Pentagon officials said that they are investigating 25 people for terrorism in connection with Wednesday’s attack that some current and former military troops could have been involved.

U.S. Capitol Police detain protesters at gunpoint outside of the House chamber, where a joint session of Congress had been meeting Jan. 6 to confirm the votes of the Electoral College.

U.S. Capitol Police detain protesters at gunpoint outside of the House chamber, where a joint session of Congress had been meeting Jan. 6 to confirm the votes of the Electoral College.
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Amid claims that Capitol Police failed to properly investigate the Capitol attackers before Wednesday, the officers themselves also could soon become part of a congressional probe.

Two Capitol Police officers have been suspended and at least 10 are under investigation for their conduct, according to Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told House Democrats on Monday that as many as 15 instances of officer misconduct are under investigation.

One reportedly put on a “Make America Great Again” hat and started “directing some people around,” he said. Another took a selfie with one of the people who had stormed into the Capitol. 

“There is going to be a lot of time spent answering questions about what went wrong, and there should be,” said Terrance Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief and Senate sergeant at arms. “There also is a lot more to do, including the large task of preparing for the inauguration.”

Gainer found Wednesday’s security breakdowns difficult to comprehend.

The former chief singled out Sund, who once served as his chief of staff and formerly headed the Special Operations Division at Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, the unit that manages major special events in the city. 

This was not Sund’s first time to the show. He helped plan the Metropolitan Police Department’s coverage of the 2001 and 2005 presidential elections and was the commander in charge of planning the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations. He also was the on-scene commander for three shootings: at the National Holocaust Museum in 2009, the Family Research Council in 2012, and the 2013 active shooter incident at the Washington Navy Yard.

“It’s so hard to understand how this happened,” Gainer said, “given the experience.”

Contributing: Kevin Crowe, Eve Chen, Maghen Moore, Matt Wynn, Kevin Johnson, Tom Vanden Brook, Claire Thornton, Mitchell Thorson, Shawn Sullivan and Javier Zarracina.

Video sources: Status Coup via Storyful; Tyler Baggins via Storyful.