Inside the fight for the Capitol: US Capitol Police officers recount being unprepared and 'betrayed'
Posted January 19, 2021 6:03 a.m. EST
CNN — The day before the US Capitol was attacked, Capitol Police officers were ordered to report to the department's equipment depot to pick up helmets, an officer who was there that day told CNN. They didn't know why they were needed, but when they arrived, they were told to return later. The helmets had yet to be scanned into inventory.
When officers finally secured helmets that Wednesday morning following roll call, they weren't given direction for use or storage. The helmets are heavy, and it wasn't clear they'd need them for the morning's protest. Some put them in their lockers, others kept them near their fixed posts.
By afternoon, the officers in the Capitol were in a fight for their lives and for the seat of American government. They were left to their own devices, outgunned, without adequate protective equipment, unaware of backup, enclosed by people, many with weapons, attempting to take over the government.
New details, provided by five US Capitol Police officers who spoke to CNN, provide a deeper look at how department leadership left its officers unprepared and how the police force charged with protecting Congress was overrun, leading to the most successful assault on the Capitol in more than 200 years.
The officers who spoke to CNN felt betrayed by leadership. They spoke about the day's events, their feelings and observations, on condition of anonymity, citing fear of losing their jobs and a retributive command staff. Minority officers were hit with racial slurs by people attacking the building.
And before the fight was over, officers were forced to shout that they were police to law enforcement responding to rescue the building after it was lost. They weren't put in a position to arrest the attackers, to defend themselves, or defend the Capitol. They weren't put in a position to succeed.
The US Capitol Police handle dozens of protests and demonstrations and events each year. They're as common "as stoplights in big cities," one officer said. They know how to plan, staff and work these events. They've handled mass arrest situations and they've kept the Capitol complex secure even after protesters crossed their lines -- such as when more than 70 people were arrested inside two Senate buildings during the first day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
"There was no planning. No pre-planning. I just don't understand. For the life of me, why not have the same precautions as we did with other demonstrations?" one officer said. "Our management was completely ... nobody knew what the hell to do. Nobody was giving direction on what to do."
"I feel betrayed," another officer said. "They didn't even put us in a position to be successful."
Steven Sund, the US Capitol Police chief, resigned after the assault. The sergeants at arms for the House and Senate resigned after Sund. They account for two of the three-member board that oversees US Capitol Police. The third, the Capitol Architect, is not involved in tactical decisions and has not been ensnared by the scandal.
A retired general will lead an investigation into the security failures, Pelosi announced last week. What happened that day is now the subject of congressional and federal criminal investigations.
A spokeswoman for US Capitol Police didn't respond to CNN's request for comment. Neither did the president of the labor union representing US Capitol Police officers.
Preparing for the day's events
Officers knew of a protest, and they knew the President was speaking. They were not in an elevated posture of readiness and wore standard duty uniforms.
But the all-hands planning sessions that precede major events, used to brief front-line officers on all the contingencies -- where to send people in case of sudden need to evacuate, where to send people who need medical help -- never happened.
It wasn't that nobody had any sense things could go wrong. Days before the planned protest, Sund asked the sergeants at arms to activate the National Guard, a request they denied, Sund told CBS' "60 Minutes." His department's intelligence section also circulated a report warning for potential violence, according to a report in The Washington Post. Sund did not respond to CNN's repeated requests for comment for this story.
For some officers, it was the first time they were assigned helmets. Not every US Capitol Police officer is assigned riot gear that officers use in crowd or riot control settings, though items like helmets, face-shields, body-shields, batons, and protective padding are all standard kit for police in state-level and medium-to-large police departments.
"It started like a normal day. It shouldn't have started like a normal day," one officer told CNN. "The thing that struck me was getting messages from coworkers saying, 'How come the members keep saying watch your back, be careful, you guys watch your six?' They knew what was coming."
After the President spoke, a supervisor went on police radio to warn of protesters leaving Trump's speech and heading toward the Capitol.
"Here they go. There's a large number of Trump supporters, they're coming from the West. We need perimeter on the West," one officer recalled hearing.
At first, it was just a crowd. The officers who spoke to CNN said they expected the normal yelling, name-calling and occasional pushing against the bike-rack fencing that they've grown accustomed to from years of policing demonstrations.
"It started like any other demonstration, except it was a lot of damn people," one officer told CNN. "But when it went south, it went south in a hurry. There was not enough people to stop what was coming. What hurt us was, these people, they planned for it. They knew we weren't going to shoot. They knew they could get up on you and we're not going to shoot unarmed people."
As the crowd set upon the Capitol, police rushed the workers setting up the inauguration stage to safety. They evacuated in such a hurry that some left tools behind.
Before the violence, there was a call for a possible bomb. Someone showed pictures of the device to a police officer who used their radio to alert others, and police officers and the bomb squad had to respond. A few minutes later, they found another, and again more officers had to respond to create a perimeter and evacuate people.
Police can't be in two places at once, and the officers handling the bombs couldn't help at the Capitol. That's when the fighting started on the West front of the Capitol. Investigators later determined the bombs were real, though it's not clear why they didn't detonate.
"They start throwing tear gas. Gas grenades. Flashbangs. Shooting cherry bombs, rubber bullet type guns they were shooting us with," one officer said. "We have OC spray (another term for pepper spray) but we're pleading for help, send us help."
Some of the group had blunt objects to break windows and projectiles to throw at officers, including bricks, signs, fence posts, fire extinguishers, lumber and shields.
Some DC Metropolitan Police officers were already at the Capitol trying to hold a perimeter outside the building. They had been monitoring the group from the Ellipse, where Trump had spoken earlier.
"We were outnumbered as it was, but if MPD hadn't been there, they would have come right in," an officer said. "They slowed the advance."
The officers described the violence as methodical and escalating. Officers were coming off the line one at a time to decontaminate after getting sprayed or gassed. Gas lingered in the air. The spray used by attackers had longer range than the spray officers had, so those on the front lines weren't able to effectively use pepper spray against attackers.
Sometimes, small groups would pick an officer to fight, occupying the officer and any other officer who joined to help.
The breach of the first perimeter was fast, and police didn't have any real security barriers out. The bike-rack style fencing is used more as a guide to keep people from stumbling into restricted areas and they're light enough to be used as weapons by protesters if a protest turns violent.
"Finally, our less-than-lethal teams came out and we're deploying gas, flashbangs, fighting fire with fire. But they had masks, they were prepared. They had earpieces, they had radios. It's not a coincidence that once those bombs were found, they started to advance on us," an officer said.
There was a call for help at the West entrance to the Capitol, and the attackers watched the police shift resources, leaving the East front scarcely guarded.
A breach of the perimeter on the East entrance followed shortly after the West perimeter collapsed. Officers believe groups were communicating between the East and West fronts and coordinating the timing of their attacks on officers.
"They're methodical, lobbing cherry bombs, little bit of this and that," one officer said. "The people we were fighting. They had gas masks. They had earpieces. They had radios."
"Look, when they busted through the bike racks and green fencing at the bottom of Pennsylvania Avenue, there was only like four people there. A woman, a supervisor, two other officers," an officer told CNN. "They busted through that. (The female officer) hit her head and had a concussion, she hasn't been back."
'You couldn't have arrested anybody'
The officers who spoke to CNN, don't recall ever being made aware of plans to take back the Capitol. They remember hearing officers all over pleading for help, both in specific emergency situations and in general to formulate a plan to clear the building of the attackers. Neither recall being given orders about how or whether to arrest people.
Capitol police, once a decision is made to start mass arrests, will set up a square using bicycle rack fencing, surround it with officers and put arrestees in flex-cuffs and into the pen for holding until things calm down. Then, officers can each handle paperwork on a handful of arrestees.
That was not an option because, as the officer said, they were "getting their asses kicked."
"You couldn't have arrested anybody," one officer said. "You could not. We were surrounded. Normally in mass-arrest situation, they comply under arrest. But (the attackers had) already proven to us they wanted to beat our asses. No way arrests could have been affected at that moment. Just get these people out and survive."
Even if the officers wanted to go into the crowd to grab a single problem actor, their lines weren't sufficiently staffed to allow for a small squad of officers to wade in, grab someone and drag them back behind the line for arrest.
"Everyone was screaming for help," an officer said. "At that point, (officers) were just responding to '10-33' calls. Officer in trouble, needs help."
Once the attackers were on the rotunda steps and near the doors, people started climbing the walls. US Capitol Police don't normally staff the grounds outside those walls with more than a couple officers because they weren't seen as entrances, so the people climbing were able to break windows and get inside.
The officers at the doors didn't know people had already broken in behind them until someone went over the radio with that information, one officer told CNN.
"They're over the radio saying they've breached the doors, they've breached windows and got inside," one officer recalled. "They came in packs, and officers working inside are trying to lockdown areas where members may be, trying to get members to secret hideaways and tunnels where they'll be safe."
On scaffolding outside the Capitol, an officer climbed to try and arrest someone.
"You guys don't have the numbers," he told the police officer.
Sund told "60 Minutes" he requested the National Guard during the siege, and the office of the Secretary of the Army delayed the request, citing the poor visuals of soldiers protecting the Capitol.
"I don't like the optics of the National Guard standing the line with the Capitol behind them," is the answer Sund says he got from a representative of the secretary of the Army. The chief of the DC Metro Police Department has confirmed Sund's account to "60 Minutes."
The Pentagon has denied Sund's optics claims and said guards were approved within about 40 minutes.
'We wouldn't have won.'
Once inside, officers were getting surrounded and encircled, fighting protesters, trying to beat people back. Flashbangs and gas were going off and officers weren't sure if it was police or protesters.
Lawmakers and staffers locked themselves in offices. At some point, one officer recalled the deputy chief (now chief) give an order over police radio to lockdown the Capitol. That means doors get secured with magnetic locks across the campus -- the Capitol and outlying office buildings. Members of congressional leadership were whisked away by officers who work dignitary protection.
Two men who walked into the Capitol after it had been breached told FBI agents that an officer, who appeared to respond out of fear, shook one of their hands and said, "It's your house now, man."
One officer was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher and later died. A woman climbing through a window inside the building leading to the Speaker's Lobby was shot by an officer, the only apparent use of deadly force by US Capitol Police that day.
One officer said he wouldn't have begrudged any officer for firing their gun, but they were outgunned. "I got 16 bullets in my handgun, 28 in my long gun. Then what?" he said.
"At that point, I wasn't looking for arms. But there were arrests with guns, a cooler of Molotov (cocktails was) found. We recovered 9 or 10 guns, found or taken off people. Guarantee so many more had 'em," he said. "You don't want to start a gunfight and have a bloodbath. We wouldn't have won."
"They knew they could get up on you without you shooting 'em," said another officer. "And there's so many. You could go hands on if you want, but there's too many people."
One officer saw two attackers flash law enforcement badges once inside. One said, "We're doing this for you, buddy."
An arrestee inside was freed after a group surrounded officers. He had already been cuffed, cleared for weapons and was on the ground when the group freed him, cuffs still on.
"(He) had that one guy cuffed thinking, OK, but there was no direction. What do you do? Who do you go to? there was no direction and the crowd snatched him from (the officer)," an officer told CNN. "What can you do? Gonna get into a gunfight over that guy?"
'I was just trying to survive.'
"The day ended when we got the reinforcements," one of the officers said. "But hours had gone by. It was a bad day."
The officers described reinforcements coming in, dozens at a time, in helmets and riot gear with rifles drawn. Police from DC, Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince George's County all mustered SWAT teams or other on-call officers to help secure the Capitol.
"You hear them going in and out of rooms and people are screaming 'blue, blue, blue,' so they know it's a friendly," one of the officers told CNN.
"I'm a Black officer. There was a lot of racism that day. I was called racial slurs, and in the moment, I didn't process this as traumatic," the other officer said, referring to racial epithets he received from some attackers. "I was just trying to survive. I just wanted to get home, to see my daughter again. I couldn't show weakness. I finally reached a safe place, surrounded by officers, I was able to cry. To let it out. To attempt to process it."
The next day, officers came to work bandaged and taped from the chaos the day before. The job of securing the capitol remains and there's an inauguration in a few days.
Others haven't returned, some with serious injuries like concussions.
About a week after the assault, the department's Internal Affairs section sent an email to officers asking to report colleagues for use of force that may have been outside Capitol Police policy. The officers who spoke to CNN found this offensive, considering the failures of planning and degree to which officers had to fight for the Capitol.
"I want to report the chief to (Internal Affairs) for getting one of our officers killed. I want to report command staff for keeping everything a fucking secret. Can I put that in a tip line? I don't care if an officer spit on one of those people," an officer said. "At that point they deserved everything they got and then some."