Shell-shocked and angry: Inside the Capitol Police force a month after the deadly attack
Posted February 3, 2021 5:25 p.m. EST
CNN — Nearly a month after the deadly attack on January 6, the US Capitol Police force remains in turmoil, with union officials preparing an unprecedented "no confidence" vote in the department's leadership, and rank-and-file officers still reeling from the physical and psychological effects of the attack.
The fallout from the insurrection has been compounded by the death of an officer during the fight, another officer's subsequent suicide and a Covid outbreak that has infected dozens of people within the Capitol Police. More than 100 officers are still nursing significant physical wounds and countless others are dealing with the psychological trauma of the day -- all while working long hours to keep the Capitol secure.
In a sign of how contentious things have become, this week an effort by union officials to schedule a "vote of no confidence" against the department's top three leaders triggered a round of recriminations from officers who criticized the timing of the move, claiming it was inappropriate and overshadowed the memorial services this week for their slain colleague, Brian Sicknick, whose remains lay in honor at the Capitol this week.
The union pushed off the vote until at least next week. The no-confidence vote is aimed at the department's acting chief, Yogananda Pittman, as well as two of her top deputies, according to a copy of a memo and flyer obtained by CNN. Pittman, who spent 14 months as an assistant chief, took over the department after former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund announced his resignation the day after the riot.
"The officers are angry, and I don't blame them," said Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the union representing Capitol Police officers. "The entire executive team failed us, and they must be held accountable. Their inaction cost one officer his life and we have almost 140 responding officers injured. They have a lot to atone for."
CNN spoke to six officers and officials familiar with department operations and reviewed department and union communications for this report. Sources asked not to be named because department rules forbid members from speaking to the media and officers feared losing their jobs.
The US Capitol Police department is part of Congress and not required to make records available like most of the 18,000 other police agencies across the country. CNN asked the agency to make Pittman available for an interview, but the agency did not respond to that request.
While Pittman apologized to lawmakers during closed-door testimony before Congress last week, saying the department should carry some of the blame for failing to act on clear warnings leading up to the attack, members of the department tell CNN they haven't heard any such apology in person. A mass email from Pittman expressing appreciation for "each and every" officer did little to improve morale, which wasn't great before January 6 and has plummeted over the last month as demands on the department grow.
"We are just a number on a schedule to them, not human beings," one officer told CNN. "Just walk around and look at the officers' faces to see the bags under their eyes."
There's also growing concern among officers about the lack of clarity around the use of force and how to respond to future protests. One officer told CNN they were given conflicting instructions during the attack and subsequent communication from the organization hasn't clarified things.
"After the events that occurred on the 6th, this department still doesn't have a contingency plan," the officer said. "Their plan is to put the same officers back on the front line to risk their lives once again while they sit in their ivory towers and fail us once again."
"Gotta think about the person next to you."
In some ways, the attack January 6 has only reinforced what many Capitol Police officers felt long before that day: In the end, all they have is each other. The events that day revealed, to the officer who spoke to CNN, a corps of officers already mismanaged. The subsequent crises the last few weeks have compounded the stress officers are feeling.
Officers who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity described a department long led by an insular command staff that applied scrutiny and discipline unevenly. As many of them looked back on the events of January 6, they described a climate of command paralysis, with some leaders not present and others giving conflicting orders.
Many officers said they are upset at the second-guessing from bosses about use of force that day, feeling they were in a fight for their lives and the lives of lawmakers and staff in the building.
Asked to provide a timeline for all Capitol Police deputy chiefs and top leadership during the attack, agency spokeswoman Eva Malecki said that because the events of January 6 "continue to be under investigation by several law enforcement agencies, the Department cannot comment on individuals' actions at this time."
In the weeks since, officers have been reluctant to seek professional counseling through the department for fear of being found unwell and unfit for duty, and have had to balance that with the obligation they feel to keep working, one officer told CNN.
"(Officers) are tired while being on edge," one department member told CNN. "It's always in the back of (our) minds because reaction time decreases with lack of sleep."
"We're coming to work for the next person we work with," another officer said. "We come to work and try to take care of each other. We're all going through it. Everybody is. Gotta think about the person next to you."
"If you asked for time off because you're going through something, they give you time off as long as you don't say buzzwords like 'depression' and stuff like that, you can keep your gun," another officer said.
The department is trying to help officers, by making hotel rooms and hot meals available, according to Malecki. The department said it's provided roughly 10,000 hotel nights and 60,000 hot meals since the insurrection.
Demands on their time won't ease anytime soon. The Capitol Police will soon have to secure the first-ever impeachment trial of a former President and an annual joint session of Congress.
Members of Congress have asked for more protection, citing threats they're getting since the impeachment vote two weeks ago. The department may expand protection to members outside of DC, while they're in their home districts. US Capitol Police will partner with the Transportation Security Administration to provide security for members at airports -- the acting House sergeant-at-arms outlined the change in a memo to lawmakers last week.
"The Acting Chief has directed the command staff to consult with the USCP FOP to adjust officers' shifts to allow them to spend more time with their families and to get much needed rest," Malecki told CNN. "The Department, however, continues to operate at a high-level of readiness given the upcoming Senate impeachment trial and continued security threats directed at the Congress and the Capitol."
There's a feeling among some officers the department is adrift, and leaders aren't up to the task of helping to correct course. Officers have cited a culture where managers aren't held to account and the lukewarm response to the separate but related crises by top department leaders.
"Feels horrible," one member of the department said. "I loved this job when I first joined. Now I can't wait until I retire."
At the same time, turmoil inside the department has only been compounded by the increasing amount of blame that has been cast in its direction since January 6 and a sense that senior leaders are looking for a scapegoat to atone for the security failures that day.
At least one unnamed high-ranking Capitol Police leader has hired an attorney to help "lawfully reveal to oversight authorities, including Congress, all they know about the events of January 6."
"For the moment, we are waiting on Capitol Police to make sure they handle things properly," Mark Zaid, the attorney representing the senior official, told CNN, underscoring concerns that the department could seek to silence those intent on speaking out about the leadership failures exposed by the attack.
An outcome that was not inevitable
In her remarks to Congress, Pittman told lawmakers she didn't believe "any preparations ... would have allowed for an open campus in which lawful protesters could exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and at the same time prevented the attack on Capital grounds that day."
Protests sometimes turn violent, and sometimes violent protesters coordinate their attacks. That either could happen was not surprising.
But officers who spoke to CNN said the outcome was not inevitable and laid blame with Capitol Police leadership. The people who assaulted the Capitol were able to because Capitol Police leadership and the US House and Senate appointees who oversee the department didn't secure the human or physical resources to protect the building, despite a known likelihood of violence that day. Violence to lawmakers was narrowly avoided.
Pittman's promotion to acting chief after Sund resigned frustrated officers who believe she bears some responsibility for the failures of January 6. Before Pittman was promoted, she was assistant chief for protective and intelligence operations, a job she was in for just over a year.
US Capitol Police sources have told CNN that, with planning, their agency and others would have been well equipped to hold the line against insurgents overrunning the Capitol. Pittman told Congress there were 1,200 people "on site" that day -- a number disputed by officers who said they could have held the line at the Capitol while awaiting backup if they'd had that many. The agency employs more than 2,300 officers and civilians.
Three sources familiar with the matter said the 1,200 figure likely represents officers across the Capitol complex, including all the outlying office buildings. Those are must-staff positions across the campus, two sources said, and most wouldn't be allowed to respond as backup to what was happening at the Capitol.
One source said there were hundreds of other officers across the campus spread among the communications building, the Library of Congress and the House and Senate buildings.
"But at the Capitol, wasn't no damn 1,200 officers. Hell, no," the officer said. "Maybe 1,200 clocked in that day but no 1,200 people out there at the Capitol."
That source estimated that with another 200 officers at the west front, they could have held a perimeter until DC Metropolitan police arrived.
"Where were they? If we had 1,200 people on site, why were there only five (officers) when the crowd first entered the Capitol grounds to get onto the west front? That's what pisses people off," another source said.
'Are you going to back us up?'
Officers also tell CNN they are frustrated by the lack of clear instructions on what they are supposed to do the next time there is an outbreak of violence at the Capitol. Lockdown drills this week did little to appease them, with one calling them "smoke and mirrors."
"It's pointless. We know how to f**king press the button and lock the door," one source said. "Come on. It was stupid."
"It's just laughable stupid to me," another source said. "The lockdown wasn't the problem that day. It was locked. They just busted windows and climbed in."
What would be better, the source said, would be for the department to provide more guidance about how to engage with protesters should they come to the Capitol again.
"They need to let these guys know what to do if (protesters) come again. ... Whether they'd be supported if they upped the level of force. There were command-level people telling (officers) to put their sticks away," he said. "One came up and grabbed his arm ... and said stop, stop, we don't do that to protesters. Officers are confused, they're getting mixed signals."
"These guys need to know if you get jumped on, are you going to back us up if I take out my stick? ... (Officers) need to know what you want. Will you support us if we're in a hostile situation and we start busting people up the head?" he asked.
Malecki, the agency spokeswoman, told CNN the events of January 6 would lead to further training. While Malecki said Pittman had visited some roll calls and some officers on post, she didn't clarify when or where. The officers who spoke to CNN said they haven't seen Pittman in roll calls and were upset by the lack of communication from the department.
"That's why morale is low," one source said. "Nobody communicates, on the ground where it matters the most. Not saying we need to be read into top-secret, need-to-know stuff. But some stuff we need to know, like why we needed helmets. Just give us a, 'Here, guys, this has the potential to get ugly.' "
Malecki didn't respond to a request for comment about the pending no-confidence vote. The timing of the vote irked some officers in the department. A letter to union chairman Papathanasiou from a former union chair said the timing is "disrespectful and appalling," according to a copy of the letter provided to CNN.
The union postponed the vote until at least next week.
Officers were allowed a private visitation at the Capitol on Tuesday night beginning at 10. Those in his unit and who worked the same shift as Sicknick also had a separate visitation, one source told CNN.
It's unclear how many officers who worked most closely with Sicknick were allowed to attend his services at the Capitol on Wednesday.
That same source told CNN that officers were disappointed they couldn't attend Wednesday morning's memorial while department brass and members of Congress were there. A planning memo obtained by CNN said only a "very small" number of US Capitol Police officers would be able to attend.
One officer said the services gave him flashbacks. Another officer who was in the Capitol on Wednesday said he felt sad and angry as the ceremony unfolded, calling the event "great" but "very somber."
The source said Sicknick's death has prompted others on the force to consider the reality that they, too, may have arrived at the same fate.
"I think every officer that worked on the 6th thinks that every day," he said.