Are Capitol Police ready for a January 6 type of attack?

Are Capitol Police ready for a January 6 type of attack?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The one-year anniversary of the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill is upon us. If you watch cable news, you know that there has been an abundance of stories to remind us. One question that doesn’t get asked very much is whether or not Capitol Police are prepared to handle any such future attacks.

After the January 6, 2021 riot, assessments were made by both lawmakers and law enforcement. Today, Politico breathlessly asks if such an event happens again, will law enforcement be ready? The answer seems to be maybe. One change that has been made is that there is a new police chief in charge. Thomas Manger took over the department in August. He says the department is ready.

“The last thing that I want to do is say, ‘this could never happen again’ and have it sound like a challenge to those people,” said Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger, who took over the department in August after his predecessor’s ouster following the siege. “I’m not trying to be overconfident. We are much better prepared.”

One glaring problem that hasn’t been resolved is a shortage of personnel. How can Capitol Police be prepared if they don’t have enough people to reasonably handle the job? Officers are still coping with the trauma in the aftermath emotionally, according to reports, and some politicians note that the police force is overtaxed. They are working overtime with threats to members of Congress spiking. Manger says the department is “probably 400 officers down from where we should be.” He cites the retirement or resignations from 135 officers since January 6. According to its website, the department employs more than 2,300 officers and civilian employees.

“My concern about the Capitol Police is that we’re making them work too hard and too long,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees Capitol security, told reporters recently. “And we need to figure out a way to shift some of those responsibilities … or to figure out a way to recruit more people.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) made the rounds on some of the Sunday morning political shows to talk about the work of the January 6 committee. Thompson chairs the committee. He thinks that if such an event happens again, the department will be ready, if intelligence sharing capabilities are in place. He points to what was a frequently asked question after January 6 – the word was out there that protesters would rally in D.C. that day so why wasn’t the department prepared to handle it? No one knew the magnitude of what would happen, as it was a rare kind of event on Capitol Hill, but there is no denying that Capitol Hill Police were caught flat-footed. Thompson points to intelligence gathering.

“I am more confident, given what occurred on Jan. 6 of last year, that if something like that occurred this time, the likelihood of anything close [happening again] would be zero,” Thompson said in an interview. “The only question is whether or not we have put our intelligence gathering entities on a sharing path … It was the worst-kept secret in America that something was going to happen, and why our agencies did not pick it up in real-time and be better prepared is one of those weaknesses we have to make sure we fix.”

We’ve seen a dry run of what a response to the possibility of an unruly event might be, though, and it sure doesn’t inspire confidence that intelligence gathering has gotten any better. The rally that was reported to happen on September 18 with some people who were involved in the January 6 rally left egg on the faces of law enforcement agencies in D.C. The rally was sparsely attended and it looked like there were more undercover FBI agents than Trump supporters.

Manger pointed out some improvements that have been made. There is an emphasis on non-lethal gear to handle crowd control.

Every Capitol Police officer now carries a department-issued phone that provides real-time emergency alerts. The phones address what became a crippling problem on Jan. 6: A flood of radio traffic that drowned out key messages and left officers feeling leaderless during the fighting.

The department’s riot control unit, singled out as deficient on Jan. 6, now has more diverse “non-lethal” gear to help with crowd control. Its intelligence analysts now regularly share threat assessments with rank-and-file officers, after many of those officers lamented that their leaders never informed them of prior intelligence about the potential for violence at the Capitol.

The department brought in an operational planning expert who has previously organized Secret Service security during major events and Congress allocated an additional $100 million last summer to the department. Here’s an interesting nugget – Congress passed legislation “giving the Capitol Police chief the unilateral authority to seek National Guard assistance, eliminating a hurdle that delayed a request for help on Jan. 6, 2021.” Biden signed the legislation. Where’s the transparency on that? It makes sense but isn’t the Biden administration supposed to be the most transparent, ever?

One question that still hasn’t been answered is why didn’t Pelosi call in reinforcements for the Capitol Police when it became clear they were in over their heads? Why didn’t she, as Speaker of the House, act quicker?

Independent watchdog Michael Bolton says there is still much to be done. He notes a lack of emergency plans and an ill-prepared intelligence division. He wants to see Capitol Police function more like a protective agency, like Secret Service, than a police department. The January 6 committee is also supposed to weigh in on recommendations for improvement, though we know it is focused on Trump and his supporters’ actions on that day.

In order to raise the caliber of recruits and increase professional behavior, Bolton recommends that officers obtain secret or top-secret level security clearances. This would involve extensive background checks and ferret out any who would be a potential insider threat. This comes from the fact that some Capitol police aided protesters in entering the building that day and others high-fived the rioters and offered support to them.

Manger says the threats against Congress have escalated. He said the number of threats totaled 9,600 in 2021. Additional personnel is needed as there is no end in sight. He may think that the department is more prepared to handle whatever comes their way but it sounds like there is still much to do, a year out from the January 6 riot last year.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on March 31, 2023