It was a long road from killing bugs to battling protesters on the front lines of Jan. 6, 2021.
As a young husband, Dennis Kelly was working as an exterminator to pay the bills when he decided to try to become a cop. He’d be good at it, he thought, and it sounded cool. His wife’s view was less rosy; her dad had been a chaplain for a police department, and police officers would come to their home to get counseling. She saw what they went through, what they grappled with afterward. But she supported her husband’s decision.
Mr. Kelly took the New Jersey civil service exam and tried finding a job with local police departments, but some officer’s relative always seemed to get hired instead. So he got his start in a new federal detention center in Philadelphia. A year later, 9/11 hit. Law enforcement officers were in demand. He saw a “hot jobs” icon on a government website and clicked. It was a Capitol Police position.
Why We Wrote This
Capitol Police has implemented dozens of recommendations since the 2021 attack caught its force off guard. But some say a deeper cultural shift is needed to protect the Capitol and those who work there, including officers.
“I thought, ‘Oh, Capitol Hill – I’ll never get hired, but what the heck, I’ll apply for it,’” he recalls. Now a retired lieutenant, he still remembers the awe he felt when he first entered an area of the 200-year-old building closed to the public. And he recalls the sense of honor he felt in upholding fellow citizens’ First Amendment rights, no matter how tired his feet got on the 12-hour shifts.
“Protesting is part of the American fabric, and I was always proud that I had a small part in making sure people had a right to say what they wanted to say,” says Lieutenant Kelly. That’s part of what hurt so much on Jan. 6, when protesters attacked him and his platoon on the West Front of the Capitol with flag poles, baseball bats, bear spray, bolts – anything they could get their hands on. “I felt like, ‘I’m helping you to protest and redress your government.’”
Like so many others, he was blindsided by the assault, carried out by some of the same kinds of people who usually waved “Back the Blue” flags and professed their love for police.
Two years on from that unprecedented attack, the United States Capitol Police is striving to implement the lessons learned from Jan. 6 and become a more robust force. That includes improving intelligence capabilities and operational planning; distributing better equipment; boosting morale through pay raises and mental health and other wellness initiatives; and adding more officers to the roster.
But there is concern that the Capitol remains vulnerable. Critics say political considerations have prevented a full examination and fixing of the systemic weaknesses that left the institution unprepared that day. Moreover, some say a deeper cultural shift is needed to protect the citadel of American democracy amid rising political violence and threats to lawmakers.
“I think [Jan. 6] was a failure of imagination, clearly,” says Steven Rotkoff, who runs his own company helping organizations in their security planning and served on the Honoré commission recommending post-Jan. 6 improvements to Congress. “I think we still have this failure of imagination.”
Shortly before noon on Jan. 6, Lieutenant Kelly and his Civil Disturbance Unit platoon arrived at the U.S. Botanic Garden, right near the West Front of the Capitol that looks down the Mall where Trump supporters had amassed a mile and a half away to hear the president speak. The platoon was about to don their riot gear when protesters started streaming over the bike-rack barricades on the West Front. Lieutenant Kelly and his officers rushed to defend the Capitol. There was no time to gear up.
How a ragtag band of protesters was able to storm one of the most iconic government buildings in one of the most heavily policed cities in America is still a matter of debate. Many blame an intelligence failure, but others say it didn’t require a special clearance to read then-President Donald Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet calling his supporters to Washington on the day Congress would be tallying the electoral votes: “Be there, will be wild!” he wrote.
Mr. Trump’s claims of massive fraud had not stood up in court, and his pressure campaign on state legislators and election officials had failed to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Supporters saw it as a 1776 moment.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the House Administration Committee that oversees Capitol security, recalls sharing with the Capitol Police social media posts that seemed to suggest impending violence. “We got a lot of, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything is under control,’ ” she says.
It wasn’t just her.
On Dec. 24, the Secret Service got an emailed document titled “Armed and Ready, Mr. President,” detailing online responses to the president’s tweet. Many Trump supporters interpreted it as a call for armed revolt, according to the Jan. 6 select committee’s final report released late last month. “There is not enough cops in DC to stop what is coming,” said one.
Jack Donohue, the head of Capitol Police intelligence, got the same document several days later – not from the Secret Service, but from a former colleague on the New York Police Department. A civilian tip warned the department, “I’ve also seen tweets from people organizing to ‘storm the Capitol’ on January 6th
On Jan. 4, Mr. Donohue’s assistant director, Julie Farnam, warned some Capitol Police leaders, “It’s potentially a very dangerous situation.”
The next day, the head of security for the Architect of the Capitol forwarded an alert to Capitol Police that an individual online was vowing that “we will storm the government buildings, kill cops, kill security guards, kill federal employees and agents.”
“We get our President or we die,” read another post spotted by the FBI, which included perimeter maps of the Capitol.
None of this made it to the police on the front lines like Lieutenant Kelly and his platoon, who were left dramatically outnumbered. The morning of Jan. 6, only 50% of the Capitol Police force was on duty; by 2 p.m., shortly after the district’s Metropolitan Police Department had declared a riot, it rose to two-thirds. It still wasn’t enough; 12 minutes later, protesters breached the Capitol, interrupting the electoral vote count and causing police to hurriedly evacuate all lawmakers.
“The National Guard should have been in place at 7 a.m.,” says Gus Papathanasiou, a Capitol Police officer who chairs the department’s labor union. “You don’t wait to bring in a relief pitcher in the ninth inning after you’ve been shelled with 20 runs in the first inning.”
Then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund did seek National Guard support several days before Jan. 6. But, he later told the Jan. 6 committee, the House sergeant-at-arms said it would be bad optics to have the military surrounding the Capitol as Congress counted electoral votes – a concern shared by Defense officials and Democratic staff. Chief Sund conceded he didn’t have the intelligence to back up his demand. In his book released this week, “Courage Under Fire,” the former chief said he never heard about the warnings that the FBI or even his own intelligence division had received.
Donell Harvin, who headed the district’s Fusion Intelligence Center at the time, acknowledges that the lack of coordination among various intelligence agencies left gaps. But there were still enough signs that bad things were coming. His own daughter asked him if it would be safe for her to go into work that day.
“Shame on the people who organized, incited, pushed it, did it – but also, shame on the people who allowed it to happen,” says Dr. Harvin, now a professor at Georgetown University, who blames “cognitive bias” for the failure of law enforcement officers to see white conservative men as threats. “Can you imagine a bank heist being pulled, when the bank knew the robbers were coming weeks in advance?”
“Does anyone have a plan?”
As the riot erupted on Capitol Hill, Lieutenant Kelly’s wife, Katherine, got a text: “I’m praying for your husband.” She started watching TV and searching social media, hoping for a glimpse of her husband. A sign he was OK.
Amid the melee, Lieutenant Kelly remembers the immense relief he felt when the Metropolitan Police Department showed up with reinforcements. An MPD commander told Capitol Police officers to lock their riot shields together. A report later detailed how little, if any, practice many of them had in using such equipment and weapons.
Together, over hours of intense fighting and tear gas attacks, the police defended a key door on the lower level, preventing a second breach of the Capitol. Lieutenant Kelly calls it “a miracle.”
The Jan. 6 committee’s first hearing, in July 2021, focused on the heroism of law enforcement officers who held the line that day, bringing two Capitol Police officers and two MPD officers in to testify. Several had been defending the same door as Lieutenant Kelly. One, MPD Officer Michael Fanone, testified that as he was dragged into the crowd, he heard people yelling, “Kill him with his own gun,” and saw a rioter repeatedly lunging for it until others intervened.
But after the committee played visceral clips of the violence, none of the nine members asked any questions about whether police had received adequate training in riot tactics, or how they could be better prepared going forward. Its 845-page report primarily blames Mr. Trump, relegating law enforcement and intelligence failures to two appendices.
The committee and its defenders say they didn’t want to come across as blaming the rank and file for what happened. That would be like blaming 9/11 on airport security officials, says Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey. “We didn’t say, ‘No, don’t look at Al Qaeda – look at the people who should have checked the hijackers’ bags.’”
Still, Mr. Papathanasiou, the chair of the Capitol Police union, says for many officers it felt like a “slap in the face” that the Jan. 6 committee hand-picked certain officers to tout as heroes. He also expresses frustration that the committee used them to support their narrative without looking at the bigger picture. “When you start using officers as political pawns, I think it’s wrong,” he says.
He had been warning for years about lack of training, equipment issues, and low morale, and felt like no one cared. His biggest fear was something like Jan. 6 – or worse. He says he asked the chiefs over the years many times about contingency plans. And indeed, on Jan. 6, an officer asked, “Does anyone have a plan?”
Weeks later, the union organized a no-confidence vote against Capitol Police leaders. Some 92% voted against Yogananda Pittman, who oversaw the intelligence division, and 96% against Sean Gallagher, who oversaw the department’s Protective Services Bureau.
Officers felt like, “They hung us out to dry,” says Mr. Papathanasiou, who also blames congressional leadership. “I’m just upset that there hasn’t been any accountability at the top.”
Chief Sund and both the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms resigned after Jan. 6. But Ms. Pittman was promoted to acting chief of Capitol Police for six months. She and Assistant Chief Gallagher, who oversaw the evacuation of lawmakers, remain in leadership, despite a scathing whistleblower letter asserting that their “leadership/intelligence failures” endangered officers’ lives and accused Congress of masking those failures.
A Capitol Police spokesperson said that when the new chief, J. Thomas Manger, came on in July 2021, he decided to retain Ms. Pittman “to keep her experience and knowledge of the department” and “expand upon the improvements that were made immediately after January 6.” The spokesperson credited Deputy Chief Gallagher with implementing some of the most significant recommendations from Congress.
Even with two years of improvements, however, some say the Capitol remains a relatively soft target. Among them is GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a former Navy SEAL.
“If I were assigned to attack this place and harm people, it would be extremely easy,” he says.
Mr. Rotkoff argues that Jan. 6 should prompt a reevaluation of the long-standing tradition of Congress being open to the American people. Just as the White House – where the public could once traipse through – now has a fence and more security protocols, Congress also needs to adapt to a new reality. Attackers learn from their failures, he notes, worrying that Jan. 6 could be akin to the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center that came eight years before 9/11.
A new threat landscape
In 2021, Capitol Police investigated 9,000 threats – more than double the number just four years prior. The hammer attack against then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband in their San Francisco home, and the attempted assault against New York congressman-turned-gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, are “sad reminders of how our social fabric is frayed,” testified Chief Manger last month before the Senate Rules Committee, which co-led a 2021 bipartisan report on Jan. 6 security failures.
Providing additional security to lawmakers – and their families – will take more resources, he said. Though the budget has expanded from less than $100 million in the late 1990s to $708 million for fiscal year 2023, Capitol Police duties have expanded significantly to respond to the threat landscape.
But Daniel Schuman, policy director with the progressive organization Demand Progress, who has testified before Congress about the Capitol Police Board, says the problem is more structural than financial.
The board is made up of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, both political appointees, and the Architect of the Capitol, a presidential appointee with a 10-year term. The inspector general for the Capitol Police is appointed by the board, but doesn’t have the authority to investigate it, and inspector general reports on the police force are not made publicly available. Moreover, neither chamber has traditionally held hearings with the full three-member board, but a recent change explicitly authorizes the House Administration and Senate Rules committees to jointly do so.
Mr. Schuman contends that the lack of transparency, independence, and accountability creates structural disincentives for reform.
The biggest problem is that there is no one entity or individual that has “uniform responsibility” for thinking ahead about how best to protect the complex, adds Mr. Schuman, who says he dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder from being there on 9/11 and is so concerned about security vulnerabilities that he has only been there a handful of times since Jan. 6.
“Nobody is in charge of the Capitol,” he says.
In a December 2021 hearing, Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton floated the idea of restructuring Capitol Police to more closely resemble a protective agency like the Secret Service, with one individual in charge of overall Capitol security and a chief overseeing day-to-day police operations.
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, for years the top Republican on the House Administration Committee that oversees Capitol security, told the Monitor last month that Chief Manger has put forward good solutions to manpower issues. Hundreds have left since Jan. 6, but the department met its goal of hiring 280 new recruits in fiscal year 2022, and is on track to meet that goal again in FY23.
But Representative Davis said he was still disappointed in the Capitol Police Board’s lack of accountability and the structure that allows whichever party is in the majority to exert significant influence.
“No matter what the majority publicly says, they’re engaged in every detail of the security apparatus in and around the Capitol Complex every single day,” said Mr. Davis, who was originally nominated to be the top Republican on the Jan. 6 committee along with four GOP colleagues. But after Mrs. Pelosi vetoed two of them, all five boycotted the committee.
They released a report last month alongside the committee’s report, in which they assessed that the House sergeant-at-arms had “succumbed to political pressures” from then-Speaker Pelosi’s office and House Democratic leadership while largely sidelining GOP involvement in security decision-making. They also found that the efforts of Ms. Farnam, who was new to the department and had little previous intelligence experience, to reorganize the Capitol Police intelligence unit left it “ineffective during a critical period.” In addition, the report asserted that the Capitol Police had still not implemented important recommendations from oversight bodies.
Representative Scanlon of the House Administration Committee is one of numerous lawmakers interviewed who cited improved intelligence sharing as the most significant change since Jan. 6. The Capitol Police spokesperson said other key issues, including equipment and operational planning, have been addressed. The inspector general’s roughly three dozen remaining recommendations, including building a new training facility and expanding protection for lawmakers, will require more time and resources.
Support for police
By 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, Lieutenant Kelly and his colleagues finally got a break. They hadn’t eaten all day. Pizza was on the way, someone said. He remembers waiting around for it to be delivered when he saw Officer Brian Sicknick collapse. The next day, Officer Sicknick died. Four other officers, one from MPD, would die by suicide in the coming days and months. More than 100 Capitol Police officers were injured.
On the second anniversary of the attack, President Biden posthumously awarded Officer Sicknick, along with six other members of the Capitol and Metropolitan Police, the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors. This week, Officer Sicknick’s family sued former President Trump and two rioters for at least $10 million in damages.
At first, Lieutenant Kelly thought he was fine. In the intense days following the assault, his department put him up in an area hotel. His wife was staying with him there, worried about her husband.
“My wife kept telling me – ‘You’re not OK, you need help,’” he says. The wake-up call came when he was in the car going to dinner with his family and wanted to suggest going to Japan Express but found he suddenly couldn’t talk.
“I knew I had to go to any lengths to get myself better,” says Lieutenant Kelly.
He went to therapy at least weekly for eight months, but it wasn’t enough. That led him to enroll in a Texas treatment program on his own dime, which helped him – and, he hopes, can be made more widely available to other federal employees.
He credits the Capitol Police with doing a lot to address trauma and boost morale at a time when it’s not popular to be a police officer. The department has made a multitude of wellness and mental health resources available, including a new program that provides confidential counseling to officers and their families. There are also peer support programs and two dogs, Lila and Leo, who make the rounds to relieve Capitol Police employees’ stress. And the department is working with the offices of the House and Senate chaplains to develop new resources for achieving “spiritual wellness.”
Lieutenant Kelly is no longer walking those halls, though he still speaks fondly of them. He retired in April 2022 after nearly two decades with the department, the last nine of which he spent in a commuter marriage. This past summer, he and his wife went to a marriage retreat in Alaska for law enforcement officers and their spouses. It was life-changing, he says, sharing a photo of himself grinning with a freshly caught pike and pristine mountain forests in the background.
“I’m so grateful I’ve gotten a second chance,” he says.
He’s disappointed though, that the department has not provided retirees like him replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Capitol Police for their heroism on Jan. 6. He wrote a letter to Chief Manger a month ago, but has yet to hear back. He would pay for a replica medal himself, he says, but the Mint has run out.
When asked whether he feels like Capitol Police leadership did right by him that day, there is a long pause.
“Yeah, I do,” he says finally. “They really tried.”