Failed response to Capitol riot shows deep divide over police use of force

The reckoning of American police entered a new chapter this week with the televised spectacle of federal security agents overrun by a mob of armed far-right extremists storming the Capitol.

On its face, the siege was a failure of planning: The U.S. Capitol Police, who deal with all sorts of protests and demonstrations year-round, did not seem to anticipate the threat posed by thousands of people who, at the urging of President Donald Trump — and after sharing their plans online — converged on the Capitol to protest his election loss. Although some officers fought with them — one rioter was shot to death and one officer later died of injuries — others took selfies and appeared to offer no resistance, allowing dozens of rioters to leave without being arrested.

The relatively lenient handling of the invaders was deeply troubling to many Americans whose views of Wednesday’s mayhem were influenced by their reaction to the anti-police protests that roiled the country over the summer. The attack on the Capitol may end up deepening the divisions between those who want police power diminished and those who warn of lawlessness, underscoring the need for police to repair their relationships with their communities.

To many officers and their supporters on the right, the Capitol Police’s performance showed how passive police have become in the face of a reform movement that aims to curtail their use of force. To them, the debacle showed that, no matter how they reacted to a mass demonstration, whether with too much force or too little, they would always be criticized.

To Black activists, civil rights advocates and many Democrats — including President-elect Joe Biden — the police response reflected law enforcement’s long history of giving white people passes for behavior that would result in beatings or death if done by people of color. Some pointed to the brutal treatment of many Black Lives Matter protesters in cities across the country after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — including the forced removal of peaceful protesters near the White House to make way for a Trump photo-op — and the more measured response to groups of white people who protested Covid-19 lockdown orders. Revelations that Wednesday’s rioters included military veterans and police officers have exacerbated feelings of disparate treatment.

And to law enforcement officials, researchers and consultants who are trying to help American police change, the Capitol fiasco was a stark reminder that police still have a ways to go to adapt to a new era of protests.

“There is a general recognition that the playbook police used to use for demonstrations is out of date,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit that advises police departments.

A few days before the Capitol siege, Wexler predicted in an email newsletter that police handling of mass demonstrations would be one of the profession’s greatest challenges in 2021, with several high-profile trials scheduled for officers charged with killing or brutalizing people last year. He questioned whether local departments were prepared.

“The kind of unpredictability of demonstrations has become very worrisome for police chiefs,” Wexler said in an interview Thursday. “The police are going to have to pretty much consider every kind of demonstration potentially volatile. That’s what happened here,” he added, referring to the Capitol.

But the protests of 2020 showed that the answer is not an overwhelming show of force.

Many departments were caught off guard by the sweep and ferocity of protests following Floyd’s death, some of which turned violent. Some police departments used tactics seen as excessive, from donning riot gear to cornering and beating protesters to using tear gas and “less than lethal” projectiles that left people bloodied or maimed. Critics said the militaristic tactics violated people’s constitutional rights and provoked violence. In cities where police had made moves to improve public trust, the response to the protests threatened to set those efforts back.

Members of the D.C. National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as demonstrators participate in a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020, in Washington.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

That experience prompted a soul-searching among some police officers and law enforcement officials that continued as they faced protests from the other end of the political spectrum: right-wing Americans angry with the anti-police demonstrators, along with pandemic lockdowns and Trump’s loss. Researchers have found that police have been less likely to step in or use force in those protests, whose participants often identify themselves as being on law enforcement’s side. Amnesty International has accused police of failing to prevent violence when those two sides clash in the streets.

“The differences we’re seeing in use of force are the political stripes of those who are being policed,” said Brian Griffey, a researcher and adviser at Amnesty International. That, he said, was on display at the U.S. Capitol, where he watched the protest morph into a riot.

How that happened is now under investigation by federal authorities and Congress. Defense Department officials said Thursday that in planning meetings local and federal law enforcement agencies did not anticipate such violence, and that the U.S. Capitol Police and Washington, D.C., police department declined offers to expand the number of National Guard troops deployed to the area. As the rioters ran amok inside the Capitol, the U.S. Capitol Police was slow to accept offers of help from the U.S. Department of Justice, a senior law enforcement official told NBC News. The agency’s chief, Steven Sund, said Thursday that he would resign, effective later this month.

Supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber at the Capitol, on Jan. 6, 2021.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

In the wake of the Floyd protests, many cities and police departments have embraced changes to the way they handle mass demonstrations. Most of those reforms have focused on curbing the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. But there is also a quieter effort to update police standards on crowd management to reflect the lessons of 2020, with less of an emphasis on maintaining control of protesters and more on allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights.

In California, for example, officials are drawing up new police training standards in response to recommendations experts gave Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in September. They range from lessons on the First Amendment and crowd psychology to improved communication and “use of force proportionality” that prioritizes restraint and de-escalation.

“Now we’re going back to the drawing board and saying, ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing here?’” said Steven Nottingham, a retired Long Beach, California, police lieutenant who teaches departments across the country how to manage civil unrest and is part of the new training effort.

There is a widespread frustration among police who feel they’ve been sent the message in recent months that more force and less force are both unacceptable, Nottingham said. “We absolutely do not know what to do. It seems like everything we do is wrong,” he said.

The answer, he tells police commanders in his crowd-management classes, is to do more to understand protesters before they show up, be more conscious of the political environment officers are working in, and respond proportionally to threats.

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Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, teaches a “tiered response” — a large contingent of uniformed officers along with undercover officers gathering intelligence from the crowd and riot units prepared to respond if protesters turn violent — that evidently did not exist at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Police do not want to risk further erosion of public trust, Eells said. But on Wednesday there was “extreme restraint, almost to the point where there was too much restraint.”

Lynda Williams, a criminal justice professor and a former Secret Service agent who leads the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said police also need to recognize that the disparate treatment of protesters is rooted in systemic racism.

That racism doesn’t just affect the police response to protests; it also poisons police planning for the events, Williams said. Williams was not involved in the response to Wednesday’s riot. But, based on her experience in helping law enforcement plan for previous protests in the Capitol, Williams said police gather a lot of information in advance and assess the risk of violence, and Black protesters are typically seen as more of a risk than white protesters.

“If that had been a minority, Black crowd, they would still be putting toe tags on individuals today,” Williams said of the Capitol rioters. “We have to acknowledge that there’s a difference.”

Demonstrators stand in front of federal officers at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore., early on July 24, 2020.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said she hoped that the U.S. Capitol debacle would not be cited by officials as a reason to give police more resources and tools to respond to mass demonstrations.

“It’s a danger to think that is the lesson,” she said.

Kim Dine, a former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, said he hoped his former agency’s failure would prompt American police to improve their response to increasingly volatile protests — and the political conflicts that often fuel them.

“It’s a stain on our history that’s not going to go away soon,” Dine said. “It’s troubling, but I think the policing profession has gotten much better and continues to get better and we have to hold ourselves accountable. But we also have to reduce this level of rhetoric that divides people and fans discord.”