WASHINGTON — The storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters on Wednesday was a disastrous failure of security: In a city on high alert, in a building with its own 1,700-member police department, people forced their way into the sanctums of American democracy with nothing more than flagpoles, riot shields and shoves.
Nobody stopped them — and some officers were captured on videos appearing to stand back as rioters streamed inside.
On Wednesday, while police were still struggling to eject the last intruders from the Capitol, current and former law enforcement officials said it appeared the U.S. Capitol Police and other agencies had failed to anticipate the size and intentions of the crowd that Trump urged to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to where lawmakers were gathered.
On the streets of Washington, federal law enforcement agencies and the National Guard — which had been intimidatingly visible during protests this summer following the death of George Floyd — kept a much lower profile.
And at the Capitol itself, police had set out low barriers and officers were largely in street uniforms, not riot gear. All were prepared to confine a protest, but not to deter an attack, law enforcement officials said.
Law enforcement experts said they were mystified by the tactics that police used once the mob was already inside the Capitol.
One woman was shot and killed by Capitol police as officers tried to stop a group from penetrating the building, according to two law enforcement officials, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe security operations.
But other police seemed to stand by, observing the disorder instead of stopping it: One image posted on social media showed an officer taking a selfie with one of the intruders, and a video seemed to show officers opening the security fence to let Trump supporters closer.
Police did not appear to try to detain the rioters, allowing them to leave unhindered. One even held a woman’s hand to steady her on the Capitol steps.
The result was an invasion, in which a heavily guarded symbol of American strength and order fell to chaos with stunning speed.
“It’s like watching a real-life horror movie. I mean, we train and plan and budget every day, basically, to have this not happen,” said Kim Dine, who was chief of the Capitol Police from 2012 to 2016. “How it happened, I can’t figure that out.”
Dine said he was surprised to see that, on Wednesday, the Capitol Police had allowed rioters to gather so close to the building, on the Capitol steps — and that, once they forced their way inside, the rioters were not immediately arrested.
“We protect the people, the place and the process that makes us the United States. That’s why we’re there,” Dine said. But, he said, on Wednesday, “The people, the place, the process — all were attacked.”
Shortly after the shooting, the D.C. Police took over handling the removal of crowds from the Capitol grounds. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, said the Capitol Police requested the assistance of D.C. police officers to help “restore order at the Capitol.”
The Capitol Police, overwhelmed by the crowds, took responsibility for speeding lawmakers to safety and ejecting those who had gotten inside, according to two people familiar with the incident. Once rioters were outside, D.C. police handled removing them from the external stairs, porticos and balconies of the Capitol.
Very few people were arrested for the breach, one person said, because officers didn’t have enough backup to take the time to arrest and detain them.
“There just weren’t enough personnel to do everything,” one law enforcement official briefed on the episode said.
Wednesday’s response by the Capitol Police was a striking contrast to how the force has handled apparent threats near the building in the past. In 2013, Capitol Police and Secret Service personnel opened fire on a car that alleged had rammed a security barricade. The driver, Miriam Carey, was killed, while her baby daughter was in the back seat.
The Capitol Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday about its staffing, preparedness or handling of the attack on the Capitol, including whether its officers detained any of the rioters.
By 6 p.m., D.C. police said they had arrested 52 people, including 47 for curfew violations and unlawful entry.
No members of Congress appeared to have been hurt Wednesday. After the invasion, many thanked the Capitol Police and other agencies for keeping them safe.
But some said they were stunned to find themselves herded into secure rooms, forced to shelter in place while a mob ransacked their offices and officers in the House chamber stood behind barricades, pointing their guns at the door.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs a committee that oversees the Capitol Police budget, said Wednesday night that he expected officials to be fired.
“There was not supposed to be anyone near the Capitol. You would be reasonably close, to be able to protest and express your view, but nobody belongs on the Capitol plaza, nobody ever goes on the Capitol steps, that is an illegal act … Those were illegal acts, and those people should have been immediately arrested,” Ryan told reporters via Zoom.
“I think it’s pretty clear that there are going to be a number of people who are going to be without employment very, very soon,” he said.
The senior leadership of the Capitol Police, including the chief, the spokesperson and the Capitol security officials who oversee the police, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant at Arms Mike Stenger, did not answer or respond to calls and emails seeking their comment.
Security at the Capitol building is controlled by Congress itself. While members often speak with pride about the openness of “The People’s House,” they have also spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the complex’s security — adding anti-vehicle barricades and building a new underground complex to screen visitors far from the Capitol itself.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress also expanded the size of its own police force from about 800 officers to 1,700 — as many officers as the big-city departments in Atlanta or Cleveland. The department’s annual budget is about $460 million.
The Capitol’s current police chief, Steven A. Sund, is a 25-year veteran of the D.C. police and “a recognized expert in critical incident management,” according to his official biography.
The Capitol Police was short some officers Wednesday, because they had been infected with the coronavirus or exposed to someone in a way that required quarantine, according to people familiar with the situation. However, law enforcement officials said, the Capitol Police and other federal agencies also seemed to underestimate the potential threat posed by Trump’s supporters — even as the D.C. police grew more alarmed.
D.C. police patrol the streets around the Capitol but do not usually have any role in protecting the building itself. In recent days, D.C. officials said, they had tracked reservations for incoming buses, and read Trump’s calls for supporters to gather for a “wild” protest in Washington.
“It was then that we realized this could be a stadium-sized crowd — a full-fledged Trump rally, and much bigger than anything we had seen previously,” said a senior District official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the city’s planning.
On Monday, Bowser began a public campaign, urging all city residents to stay away from downtown Wednesday, and through intermediaries, promising to keep pro-Trump protesters from defacing the recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, north of the White House.
But even Wednesday, as people poured into downtown Washington, Capitol Police officials had assured D.C. police leaders midmorning Wednesday that they felt comfortable with their security setup, according to a senior District law enforcement official.
There were a limited number of federal law enforcement personnel deployed around the city, after District officials — who did not want to see a repeat of the forcible clearing of Lafayette Square last summer — asked them to stand back.
“To be clear, the District of Columbia is not requesting other federal law enforcement personnel and discourages any additional deployment without immediate notification to, and consultation with, MPD if such plans are underway,” Bowser wrote in a letter to the Justice Department on Tuesday.
Pentagon officials also wanted to keep a low profile, reacting to criticism of the military’s response during the George Floyd protests, when Guard members patrolled D.C. streets.
In the run-up to Wednesday, Department of Defense officials had approved a request from D.C. officials for the activation of 340 National Guard members, on the condition that they did not carry firearms and were in a supporting role, such as traffic duty.
Around midday, Trump addressed a swelling crowd of supporters, and suggested that they march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol — where both houses of Congress were expected to meet for a marathon session to formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
When they got there, they found a set of barricades set up by Capitol Police. Those were intended as a show of force, law enforcement officials said, but the rioters simply hopped over them or knocked them over.
Policing experts say they are taught to set up multiple lines of defense, starting far from the building they need to defend. In this case, however, it appeared that the police did not make a concerted effort to stop the intruders until they were on the Capital’s steps — where videos showed officers not wearing riot gear in shoving matches with protesters.
“A good perimeter, and then a show of force. Enough people that can deal with the crowd that’s coming at you,” Ed Davis, the former commissioner of police in Boston, said in an interview as he watched the invasion on TV. “Right now, there’s almost nothing here. This is incomprehensible.”
Federal law enforcement officials on Wednesday said the Capitol Police had not expected so many Trump supporters. Now, because the mob had been allowed so close, they were able to move around all sides of the building — looking for doors and windows where no officers were present.
“Capitol Police did have a plan, but apparently they assumed business as usual,” said one law enforcement official. “They didn’t expect Trump to incite them and that they would forcefully push their way in. Bottom line, there just wasn’t enough personnel to prevent a mob from pushing in.”
Sometime after 2:10 p.m., one male protester used a clear plastic riot shield to break through the windows on a first floor to the South Side of the building, then hopped in with a few others, according to officials familiar with the incident. Police believe that once inside, other protesters opened another door or a few doors to let still more of their compatriots in.
The breach triggered an instant call for help across Washington to other law enforcement partners. At the U.S. Secret Service, headquarters sent out an emergency alert to all gun-carrying Secret Service personnel to report to headquarters in preparation to help secure the Capitol.
At one point in the afternoon, Capitol Police also requested that Defense Department officials send an additional 200 National Guard members to assist them, according to defense officials familiar with the issue, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to that request. They offered instead to send some National Guard members to backfill police in other roles, allowing additional law enforcement to bolster security outside the Capitol, defense officials said. But less than hour later, about 3 p.m., Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy instead activated the entire D.C. National Guard, as the severity of the violence became apparent.
Defense Department officials were “flabbergasted” at the criticism about the limited size of the initial National Guard presence, noting that they provided exactly what Bowser requested, according to a senior defense official.
Late Wednesday, federal law enforcement agencies deployed hundreds of agents from FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service to assist the Capitol Police. “We intend to enforce the laws of our land,” said Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.
But, by that time, the mob was in.
They bypassed the magnetometers, strolled the hallways and posed for photos in lawmakers’ offices and in the Senate chamber. One was shown in photos carrying away a lectern. At one point, security officers inside the House chamber used furniture to barricade the door — the same portal presidents walk through to give the State of the Union address — drawing their weapons and pointing them at the mob trying to get in.
“A couple of months ago when Black Lives Matters was here protesting, we couldn’t move because of the police and others. Well, where were they today?” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said afterward
“We are going to have a situational come-to-Jesus over what happened here today,” Watson Coleman said.
It was not until about 7 p.m., roughly five hours after the breach, that the Capitol was cleared and members of Congress returned to their chambers — escorted by heavily armed FBI agents and police in riot gear.
Law enforcement officials worry that a dangerous lesson could linger: that a mob could shut down American democracy itself, by targeting its weakly defended centers of power. The incident prompted the Secret Service to begin to reassess security plans for the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to one person briefed on discussions. And lawmakers said they fear the mayhem that was uncorked will not quickly subside.
“When a president who speaks to people in an echo chamber tells them not to trust any of the institutions of their government and then tells them to go to the Capitol and be wild, this is what happens,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said in an interview.
“If you just feed this beast in an effort to appease it, it just gets stronger and bolder until it comes after the very people who are trying to appease it,” he added.
Some in the mob seemed to have already learned.
“We’ll be back, traitors!” one man yelled, as police finally drove the group away from the Capitol in the evening.