Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Democracy & Elections

Policing and the Siege of the United States Capitol

Vida B. Johnson
Thursday, June 16, 2022, 8:01 AM

The attack on the Capitol was enabled by a law enforcement culture that has ignored white supremacy and far-right extremism

Jan. 6 Capitol attack (Tyler Merbler,; CC BY 2.0,

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The House Jan. 6 committee hearings remind us that well over 100 police were injured on Jan. 6, 2021, during the riot at the Capitol. The Department of Justice says the rioters caused more than $2 million in damage to the Capitol. Powerful people cowered in fear for their lives—the vice president, the speaker of the House, and hundreds of others were endangered. 

And while the goal of the insurrectionists was to prevent the certification of election results, far-right extremism, race, and racism took center stage. Confederate flags flew inside and outside the Capitol Building. Racial slurs were hurled at Black police officers. In addition to combat gear and bulletproof vests, the rioters who stormed the Capitol wore white supremacist symbols—like Pepe the Frog—emblazoned on their clothing; one wore a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other far-right extremists and white supremacists violently attacked U.S. democracy and law enforcement. 

This shocking attack has made many police officers there that day heroes. And many police did act heroically. But the insurrection on Jan. 6 also illustrated perfectly the problems in American policing. These problems make everyone less safe every day of the year. Policing was partially at fault for the events of Jan. 6. As I argue in a recently published article, there are four ways in which American law enforcement was complicit in this attack on democracy, and the failure to address the complicity continues to imperil us all. 

Law Enforcement Underestimated the Mostly White Crowd

Law enforcement underestimated the threat posed by the mostly white crowd on Jan. 6 and in the days leading up to it. This is likely due to the unconscious racial biases of the commanding officers who had intelligence about what was planned for that day. Despite the promise of violence, the ample warning, and the long and recent history of domestic terrorism by the far right, the Capitol Police were caught flat-footed.

The organizers of the “Stop the Steal” rally explicitly promised violence. President Trump advertised that the event would “be wild” and asked the crowd to “fight like hell” over the “stolen” election. His attorney Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor and former U.S. attorney, told the attendees “let’s have trial by combat” just before the group went to the Capitol.

And there’s no question that police departments were on notice that far-right extremists can be dangerous. In addition to the warnings about this particular rally, there were other warning signs. An October 2020 report said far-right groups are behind most terrorist attacks in the United States. Just after Election Day, while votes were being counted in disputed swing states, there were reports of groups of Trump supporters appearing armed at vote-counting spaces in Maricopa County, Arizona, and Detroit, Michigan. Armed men were arrested in Philadelphia outside a convention center where votes were counted. The car the accused men were driving had stickers on it associated with QAnon, the online conspiracy theory that imagines Donald Trump saving children from a pedophilia ring run by Democrats. Supporters of the conspiracy theory were in attendance at the Jan. 6 rally. News media sounded the alarm connecting the prevalence of conspiracy theories circulating about the theft of the election along with the more entrenched QAnon conspiracy theory rising in popularity in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The presence of so many people taking up arms to “monitor” the counting of votes around the 2020 election should have connected the dots for law enforcement that protests at the certification of the electoral votes by Congress would be violent.

The Capitol Police, a well-funded police department the same size as the police department for the entire city of San Diego, was not prepared for the mob’s strength, size, or motives. Officers were not supplied with helmets, gas masks, or riot gear to protect them from the bear spray, other aerosols, and flash-bangs, nor did the department implement other crowd-control measures. Indeed, the Capitol Police had to rely heavily on the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department to provide reinforcements properly prepared for riot control.

In the days immediately following the siege, former D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey acknowledged that implicit bias by police officials was at play. In an interview, Ramsey said, “There’s a bias that exists that you just can’t ignore[.] … [The mob is] mostly white. They claim they love police. I think as a result of that, some people let their guard down. They didn’t think they would attack and do the things they did. … I don’t see how you can draw any other conclusion.

Unconscious bias that gave the rioters the benefit of the doubt is one of the ways that racial bias contributed to the Capitol breach, but it is not the only one.

Police Officers Participated in the Attack

Law enforcement officers participated in the attack on the side of the insurrectionists. More than 30 police officers from around the country were at the “Stop the Steal” rally or participated in the riot at the Capitol. This is in addition to many other former and retired police officers who participated in the attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power.

A lieutenant sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, was investigated for her role in breaching the Capitol. Chris West, the sheriff of Canadian County, Oklahoma, traveled to the rally. Several officers from Seattle traveled to D.C. for the riot and were placed on administrative leave. Officers from Pennsylvania and California were in attendance. A police chief from a New Hampshire town was there as well. There were reports by D.C. police officers that police officers from other jurisdictions flashed their badges in order to gain entry into the Capitol.

There is real concern that these were more than just a few “bad apples.” Indeed, public-facing officers whose job it was to attract and vet new officers to police departments were in attendance at the pro-Trump rally organized by reality-denying far-right forces. A Philadelphia police detective is under investigation for her attendance at the event. The detective worked for the Recruit Background Investigation Unit, running background checks of officers being hired by the department, including conducting social media searches. A Kentucky police officer was “reassigned” after attending the Jan. 6 rally. He was the state’s top police recruiter.

There are allegations against several police officers for their involvement in the storming of the Capitol itself. Two police officers from the same police department in a small town in Virginia have been convicted for breaking into the Capitol. A Pennsylvania police officer from North Cornwall township is accused of being at the front of the line of people who breached the Capitol. Although he is alleged to have actually pushed against police, he apparently lamented on a social media platform that the FBI was “targeting police” who were at the Capitol.

That police officers felt they could simply take off work to attend the rally—the aim of which was to stop Congress from carrying out its constitutional duties of certifying the electoral vote—speaks to how well insulated officers are from consequences in their employment. It is chilling to consider that police entrusted to uphold the Constitution helped create a constitutional crisis and delayed the certification of the election.

Police officers attacked a building that was protected by police officers. Police authority was undermined, and more than 100 police were injured in the breach. Lawlessness of some police officers endangered other police and democracy itself.

When one contemplates how easily some police officers and former police officers resorted to violence toward one of the most sacred buildings in the country, with cameras rolling and the nation watching, it is terrifying to consider what police may be capable of when no one is watching. 

Some Capitol Police Facilitated the Attack

The breach of the Capitol may have been aided by some members of the Capitol Police. At least 35 Capitol Police officers were investigated for their role in the attack by the Capitol Police Office of Professional Responsibility. Three Capitol Police officers are being investigated for posing for selfies with rioters. Videos appear to show some officers allowing rioters past barricades and, in some instances, allowing them inside the building. 

It is not hard to imagine that some officers employed by the Capitol Police may have been pro-Trump and involved in far-right or even white identity extremist groups. Indeed, former Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer acknowledged there was broad support for Trump among officers. In the days after the Capitol siege, 12 percent of Americans polled said that they supported the actions taken by the rioters. Given that white men are the group most likely to have voted for Trump and that white men are overrepresented on the Capitol Police force, an even larger share than 12 percent of those guarding lawmakers that day may have been sympathetic to the rioters. 

Police Have Underestimated the Far Right for Years

The attack on the Capitol was enabled by a law enforcement culture that has ignored white supremacy and far-right extremism. Minimizing the threat posed to people of color and the national security threat posed by white supremacists, anti-government militias, and other far-right groups helped enable the Capitol siege in January 2021. 

The FBI warned of the infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists back in 2006. More than 14 years later and just a few months before the siege, in the fall of 2020, Congress held hearings on white supremacists in police departments. Rep. Jamie Raskin declassified the report, but its warnings went unheeded. 

Law enforcement had other warnings of the growing threat of identity extremism—the violence perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and the multiple mass shootings by racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant domestic terrorists in 2018 and 2019. These newsworthy events sparking national discussions should have raised concerns of law enforcement about the far right. Regardless of whether law enforcement didn’t see the threat because of implicit biases or because their ranks were infiltrated by those same forces, law enforcement failed.

Law enforcement officials have simply done a bad job enforcing laws that target these anti-government and far-right groups. For example, it may be legal to openly carry weapons in public in many states, but taking up arms as part of a militia group is against the law in all states. But the largely white armed uniformed militias that attended many protests of the police killing of George Floyd faced few legal consequences for their actions in 2020. In some instances, these groups were thanked and rewarded by law enforcement on the scene of the protests. Similar scenes played out at anti-masking and vote-counting rallies. Police support for issues that are part of the far right’s agenda may have put far-right extremists at ease about any resistance they might face from police at the Capitol.

Financial resources have not been deployed to adequately fight the problem of far-right extremism. In 2019, Michael McGarrity, then the FBI counterterrorism chief, testified before Congress that only 20 percent of the FBI’s terrorism budget was devoted to domestic terrorism. The rest of the budget was devoted to terrorism threats from outside the United States. When one considers that there has not been a noteworthy terrorist attack from outside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, but numerous acts of terrorism by U.S. citizens inspired by far-right ideologies, it is clear that the FBI’s resources have been misplaced.

Whether the result of inattention or willful ignorance of the problem within local police departments and at the Department of Justice, inaction not only allowed extremists to remain on police forces but also allowed the problem to fester nationwide while valuable resources were diverted elsewhere in the vital months just before the attack. Attorney General William Barr and those in the Department of Justice focused attention on antifa and Black Lives Matter groups at the expense of investigating the role of white supremacist and far-right extremists, groups with a demonstrated history of violence.

By ignoring the threat for decades, failing to devote substantial resources to the problem, and shifting focus of resources away in the months preceding the Capitol siege from the proven violence of white supremacists, law enforcement enabled the Capitol riots. Failing to address this known threat was a catastrophic collapse of local and federal law enforcement. It is illustrative of structural racism by police—failing to focus on known dangerous white extremists and instead focusing on Black Lives Matter protests. The failure to investigate the known threat of white supremacists and far-right extremists demonstrates how easily law enforcement power can be deployed to harm certain groups of people. It also illustrates well that law enforcement priorities are not connected meaningfully to goals of public safety. To keep all Americans safe, law enforcement priorities must be reassessed and refocused on the far-right extremist threat terrorizing the United States.

Vida B. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center

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