January 6 Riot Prompts Year of Change for Capitol Police

WASHINGTON -
In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, photo, police form a line to guard the Capitol after violent rioters stormed the Capitol, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A year after thousands of violent rioters overwhelmed police officers at the U.S. Capitol — injuring some in the process — the force dedicated to protecting the premier symbol of American democracy has transformed.

The leaders who were in charge of the U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 6 were ousted following criticism for intelligence and other failures that left the legislative branch vulnerable to the stunning attack. And more broadly, the agency that was once little-known outside of Washington now has an elevated profile, leading to a roughly 15% increase in funding and a greater awareness of its role in the patchwork of groups that protect the region.

With the nation’s political divide running deep and an unprecedented number of threats against lawmakers, there is still concern about the readiness of the Capitol Police to thwart another attack. But experts say the shock of the insurrection has prompted needed changes, including better communication among the Capitol Police, other law enforcement agencies and the public.

“It’s a sea change between this year and last year in terms of how the Capitol Police are thinking, and operating,” said Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that focuses on professionalism in policing. “They’re going to be over-prepared, and willing to be criticized for being over-prepared.”

As the temporary public face of the department, then-acting Police Chief Yogananda Pittman conceded to Congress in February that multiple levels of failures allowed rioters to storm the building. But she disputed the notion that law enforcement had failed to take the threat seriously, noting how Capitol Police several days before the riot had distributed an internal document warning that extremists were poised for violence.

The police department had compiled numerous intelligence documents suggesting the crowd could turn violent and even target Congress. The intelligence documents, obtained by The Associated Press, warned that crowds could number in the tens of thousands and include members of extremist groups.

The Capitol Police Board has oversight of the force and is comprised of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol, who oversees the building. It passed over Pittman in its search for a permanent chief and, in July, selected J. Thomas Manger, the former chief of the police departments in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Manger has focused on making major changes to the agency, which includes 1,800 sworn police officers and nearly 400 civilian employees. He’s ordered new equipment for front-line officers and officers assigned to the civil disturbance unit while expanding training sessions with the National Guard and other agencies.

In the last year, Capitol Police say they have also improved the way that investigators gather, analyze and disseminate intelligence and have brought on someone dedicated to planning major events to focus on intelligence and coordination. The agency has also started conducting planning sessions and exercises ahead of major events and is briefing officers in person.

But even with a new chief and major changes to operations, questions still remain about whether the Capitol is adequately protected.

The Capitol Police watchdog has said only a small number of the recommendations he made to make the Capitol complex “safe and secure” have been adopted. And he says there were clear systemic issues identified after the insurrection.

“The Department still lacks an overall training infrastructure to meet the needs of the department, the level of intelligence gathering and expertise needed, and an overall cultural change needed to move the department into a protective agency as opposed to a traditional police department,” Inspector General Michael Bolton told lawmakers on the Senate Rules Committee last month.

Reporting by the Associated Press.