The shadow of the riot
U.S. Capitol Police are still reckoning with the aftermath of last month’s security breach.
WASHINGTON—On a cold Tuesday night, the cremated remains of former Capitol Hill Police Officer Brian Sicknick arrived to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Sicknick died on Jan. 7, a day after he sustained injuries from a riotous mob that forced its way into the Capitol. He was 42.
On Wednesday, lawmakers held a formal ceremony to mourn the loss.
At a podium in front of the table where Sicknick’s remains rested in a wooden urn, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave a short tribute to the fallen officer. “My promise to Brian’s family is that we will never forget his sacrifice,” she said.
Sicknick’s memorial served as a reminder of the lasting toll the Jan. 6 riot took on the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) force. Officers who responded to the security breach still suffer physical and mental injuries. They, along with lawmakers and the public, are demanding accountability for those who made decisions that left the police exposed.
“Between USCP and our colleagues at the Metropolitan Police Department, we have almost 140 officers injured,” Capitol Police Union Chairman Gus Papathanasiou said last week. Several sustained head injuries. One officer had two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs. Another was stabbed with a metal fence stake, while yet another officer was going to lose an eye due to his injuries. Four rioters also died: One was shot by a police officer, and three others experienced medical emergencies.
In testimony last week before the House Appropriations Committee, acting USCP Chief Yogananda Pittman said officers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the events, and some contracted COVID-19. Two police officers who were on duty on Jan. 6 have committed suicide.
Robert Contee, acting chief of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, told the committee that police “engaged in literal battle for hours. … Law enforcement training neither anticipates nor prepares for hours of hand-to-hand combat.” The effects of post-traumatic stress include impaired cognition, which can limit officers’ ability to respond to the dangerous situations that often occur on the job, said Dr. Joseph Guthrie, a certified psychiatrist and a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.
“This could affect the officer’s ability to police effectively and safely, causing negative consequences for career, relationships, finances, physical health; essentially affecting all domains of life,” Guthrie said. (Such effects are common for police after riots. More than 150 Minneapolis police officers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after last summer's riots in that city.)
Papathanasiou slammed the department’s leadership for “betraying” the rank-and-file force by neglecting to prepare fully for the threat to the Capitol. Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the USCP, did not respond to a request for comment, but in her written testimony to the House Appropriations Committee, which leaked to the news media, Pittman listed some of the mistakes made by USCP leadership.
On the day of the riot, just 1,200 USCP personnel out of a staff of more than 2,300 were on duty at the Capitol. The department “should have been more prepared for this attack,” Pittman wrote, adding that by Jan. 4, police leadership knew militia groups and white supremacist organizations would attend the Jan. 6 rally where President Donald Trump would speak about the election results as Congress convened to certify them. They also knew some of the participants planned to bring firearms and other weapons.
“We knew that there was a strong potential for violence and that Congress was the target,” Pittman wrote. “The department prepared in order to meet these challenges, but we did not do enough.”
Two days prior to the insurrection, Pittman said, former USCP Chief Steven Sund asked the Capitol Police Board, which oversees the department, to put in a request for support from the National Guard. Pittman said the board denied the request.
Sund and other board members resigned following the events. The Senate and House sergeants-at-arms also stepped down from their posts.
Capitol Police board member J. Brett Blanton denied in a statement that Sund ever made a formal request for reinforcement, though left open the possibility Sund may have talked to other board members about it.
Papathanasiou called it unconscionable that Sund, Pittman, and others “knew what was coming but did not better prepare us for potential violence. … The entire executive team failed us, and they must be held accountable.”
The union is calling for Pittman to be replaced, as well. Papathanasiou did not respond to a request for comment.
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