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Six Takeaways from Today’s Hearing About the Capitol Police on Jan. 6

Big questions remain unanswered, but the need for reform is clear.
February 23, 2021
Six Takeaways from Today’s Hearing About the Capitol Police on Jan. 6
A temporary security fence topped with concertina razor wire surrounds the U.S. Capitol on February 17, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The fence was erected around the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and their associated office buildings following the deadly January 6 insurrection, where thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to halt certification of the 2020 presidential election results. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

The failure to prevent the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol was the focus of a joint Senate committee hearing on Tuesday. The three men most responsible for protecting the Capitol—Steven Sund, the former chief of the Capitol Police; Michael Stenger, the former Senate sergeant at arms and doorkeeper; and Paul Irving, the former House sergeant at arms—all testified alongside Robert Contee, the acting chief of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. All three looked the worse by comparison.

Washington, D.C. likely has more police and security officials per square inch than any other municipality in the country. The Capitol Police alone have 2,450 employees, an annual budget in excess of $500 million, and the least amount of accountability or transparency of any large police force nationwide. With my colleagues at the Demand Progress Education Fund, I have spent years digging into their activities and have long feared they would not be able to meet a moment of crisis.

Congress must reform the Capitol Police. Decades of funding increases and self-regulation have allowed the agency to stagnate, and the force’s leadership has lost the confidence of the officers, as shown by an overwhelming no-confidence vote last week. Earlier this month, Demand Progress released a slate of recommendations for reforms, and today’s hearing made clear why it is so important that they should be implemented immediately.

Here are six key takeaways from Tuesday’s hearing:

1) Capitol Police Oversight. The Capitol Police are “overseen” by the Capitol Police Board, composed of the House sergeant at arms, the Senate sergeant at arms, the architect of the Capitol, and (ex officio) the Capitol Police chief. But it was obvious from Chief Sund’s surprised reaction to a question from Senator Blunt that he felt no reason to consult the architect of the Capitol on operational matters. Along with what we have heard elsewhere, this is an indication that the Capitol Police Board is not operating in a meaningful and appropriate fashion.

2) Money is not a problem. When Sund, Stenger, and Irving were asked if they were ever denied a funding request for salaries and operating expenses by Congress, they all answered “no.” The question, asked by Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy, illustrated that failures of Jan. 6 arose not from inadequate resources but from the way the Capitol Police and the House and Senate sergeants at arms managed their resources and prioritized their requests.

3) Intelligence management failures. The attack upon the Capitol was coordinated in advance and organized in its implementation, and it employed real-time communications and military-like tactics. Intelligence warnings were sent to the Capitol Police’s intelligence team at least the day prior to Jan. 6. Chief Sund says the warnings never made it to him. Moreover, anyone merely monitoring the news in the weeks before Jan. 6 could tell that the threat to the Capitol was escalating, but Chief Sund blames executive branch intelligence agencies for the failure to properly assess the threat. Why did the Capitol Police leadership not put together the obvious trendline of danger and make its own assessment?

4) Miscommunication. Aides to congressional leaders, the Capitol Police chief, and the sergeants at arms have different accounts of the events of Jan. 6. For example, Chief Sund says he requested the authority to call the National Guard at 1:09 p.m., but House Sergeant at Arms Irving, the person Chief Sund said he asked for permission, says he did not receive the request until after 2:00 p.m. There were also suggestions that Chief Sund received pushback because of the “optics” of having the National Guard in the U.S. Capitol, an allegation that Sergeant at Arms Irving denied. Whatever the circumstances, poor communication among the principals is another sign of management problems.

5) Security theater. Capitol Police leadership have made no secret that they want to erect permanent fencing and other physical security measures. Former Chief Sund offered to brief members, in closed session, as to what physical security measures he would implement. Elsewhere, however, it was noted that no police force could have withstood the mob attack, which is why it is important to be able to deploy the National Guard rapidly. A fencing proposal must not be allowed to take attention away from solutions that could significantly adapt to future security threats, such as addressing Capitol Police management. And more generally, the proposal to close Congress off from the people it represents is gravely concerning.

6) Equipment and training. There appears to be a real gap between how D.C. police are trained and equipped and how the Capitol Police are. For example, we heard testimony that D.C. police all have helmets, batons, gloves, and gas masks, but apparently not all Capitol Police officers have helmets. Chief Sund testified that helmets for all Capitol Police officers were recently ordered, but even that fact is flabbergasting: Why was such an order placed recently? Similarly, Chief Sund in his written testimony indicated deficiencies in training because of the nature of the obligations on the Capitol Police. This raises the question of why that was not addressed previously.

A failure to plan is a plan for failure. It is hard to believe that the Capitol Police leadership could not have anticipated the assault on the Capitol, especially in light of the escalating threats. It is surprising they did not sufficiently invest in their intelligence unit. It is astonishing that information received by that unit either was not transmitted upward or was not received by top leadership. We can expect to hear more testimony later this week and next from some of the key players, which should help clarify why the National Guard was not dispatched in a timely fashion.

Although today’s hearing answered some questions about Jan. 6, it raised some new questions and left other long-standing questions unaddressed:

  • How does the Capitol Police Board actually work? How is it intended to work? What it is intended to do? How is it staffed? How should it be reformed?
  • Who is responsible for supervising intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination? Who is responsible for having accurate intelligence assessments? If intelligence warnings did not reach Chief Sund, why not? Why were intelligence warnings not taken seriously? What happened?
  • Who is responsible for determining what requests to make with respect to obtaining and using appropriate equipment? Was the equipment available insufficient to the need? What went wrong in the requisition or distribution process?
  • The Capitol Police, the Capitol Police Board, the Capitol Police inspector general, and others are responsible for more than half a billion dollars in annual spending. They are insufficiently transparent and accountable, which leads to a culture of complacency and insularity. How should that be remedied?

Daniel Schuman

Daniel Schuman is the policy director of Demand Progress and the publisher of EveryCRSReport. Twitter: @danielschuman.