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


The U.S. police calculus entered a new chapter this week with the televised spectacle of federal security officers being swarmed by a host of far-right armed extremists storming the Capitol.

At first glance, the siege was a planning failure: the United States Capitol Police, which handle all manner of protests and protests year round, did not seem to anticipate the threat posed by thousands of people. people who, at the behest of President Donald Trump – and after sharing their plans online – converged on Capitol Hill to protest his electoral loss. Although some officers fought with them – a rioter was shot and an officer later died of his injuries – others took selfies and appeared to offer no resistance, allowing dozens of rioters to leave without being arrested.

The relatively indulgent handling of the invaders has been deeply troubling to many Americans whose views of Wednesday’s chaos have been swayed by their reaction to the anti-police protests that rocked the country over the summer. The attack on Capitol Hill could end up deepening divisions between those who want a decrease in police power and those who warn of anarchy, underscoring the need for the police to mend their relations with their communities.

For many officers and their right-wing supporters, the performance of the Capitol Police showed just how passive the police have become in the face of a reform movement that seeks to reduce their use of force. For them, the debacle showed that no matter how they reacted to a mass protest, whether with too much or not enough force, they would always be criticized.

For black activists, civil rights activists, and many Democrats – including President-elect Joe Biden – the police response mirrored law enforcement’s long history of giving white people passes for behavior that would result in beatings or death if committed by people of color. Some have pointed to the brutal treatment of many Black Lives Matter protesters in cities across the country following the May 25 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis – including the forcible relocation of peaceful protesters near the White House to make way for a Trump photoshoot – and the more measured response to groups of white people who protested against the Covid-19 lockdown orders. The revelations that Wednesday’s rioters included veterans and police added to the feeling of disparate treatment.

And for law enforcement officials, researchers, and consultants trying to help America’s police change, the Capitol fiasco was a stark reminder that police still had a way to go to adjust to a new era of demonstrations.

“It is generally accepted that the playbook that police use for protests is out of date,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit that advises police departments.

Days before the Capitol siege, Wexler predicted in an email newsletter that police handling of mass protests would be one of the profession’s biggest challenges in 2021, with several high-profile trials slated for officers accused of ‘killing or brutalizing people last year. He wondered if the local departments were prepared.

“The kind of unpredictability of the protests has become very worrying for police chiefs,” Wexler said in an interview Thursday. “Police are going to have to consider just about any type of potentially volatile event. That’s what happened here, ”he added, referring to the Capitol.

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

Many departments were caught off guard by the sweeping and ferocity of the protests after Floyd’s death, some of which turned violent. Some police departments used tactics deemed excessive, ranging from donning riot gear, turning and beating protesters, and using tear gas and “less than lethal” projectiles that left people behind. bloodied or mutilated. Critics said militaristic tactics violated people’s constitutional rights and provoked violence. In towns where police had taken steps to improve public confidence, the response to protests threatened to roll back those efforts.

Members of the DC National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as protesters take part in a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd on June 2, 2020, in Washington.Fichier Win McNamee / Getty Images

The experience sparked introspection among some police and law enforcement officials that continued as they faced protests on the other end of the political spectrum: right-wing Americans angry at protesters anti-police, as well as pandemic lockdowns and the loss of Trump. The researchers found that the police were less likely to intervene or use force in these protests, whose participants often identify as being on the side of law enforcement. Amnesty International has accused the police of failing to prevent violence when the two camps clash in the streets.

“The differences we see in the use of force are the political allegiances of those being watched,” said Brian Griffey, researcher and advisor at Amnesty International. This, he said, was on display at the U.S. Capitol, where he watched the protest turn into a riot.

How this happened is currently under investigation by federal authorities and Congress. Department of Defense officials said Thursday that during planning meetings, local and federal law enforcement did not anticipate such violence, and that police in the United States Capitol and Washington, DC, had refused offers to increase the number of National Guard troops deployed in the area. As rioting raged inside the Capitol, US Capitol Police were slow to accept offers of help from the US Department of Justice, a senior law enforcement official told NBC News. Agency chief Steven Sund said Thursday he would resign, effective the end of the month.

Supporters of President Donald Trump confront Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill, Jan.6, 2021.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

In the wake of the Floyd protests, many cities and police departments have adopted changes in the way they handle mass protests. Most of these reforms have focused on reducing the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. But there is also a calmer effort to update police standards on crowd management to reflect the lessons of 2020, with less emphasis on maintaining control of protesters and more on doing so. allow people to exercise their First Amendment rights.

In California, for example, authorities are developing new police training standards in response to recommendations experts gave Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in September. They range from lessons on the First Amendment and crowd psychology to improving communication and “using proportionality of force” which prioritizes restraint and de-escalation.

“Now we go back to the drawing board and say, ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing here?'” Said Steven Nottingham, a retired police lieutenant from Long Beach, Calif., Who teaches departments across the country how troubles and is part of the new training effort.

There is widespread frustration among police officers who feel they have received the message in recent months that more force and less force are both unacceptable, Nottingham said. “We have no idea what to do. It seems that 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 aware of the political environment in which officers work, and respond proportionately. threats.

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Thor Eells, executive director of the National Association of Tactical Officers, teaches a “multi-level response” – a large contingent of uniformed officers as well as undercover officers gathering intelligence from mobs and anti- riots prepared to respond if protesters turn violent – which clearly did not exist on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Police do not want to risk a 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 former Secret Service agent who heads the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials, said police must also recognize that the disparate treatment of protesters is rooted in systemic racism .

This racism not only affects the police response to protests; it also plagues police planning for events, Williams said. Williams was not involved in the response to Wednesday’s riot. But, based on her experience helping law enforcement plan previous demonstrations on the Capitol, Williams said police gathered a lot of information in advance and assessed the risk of violence, and the protesters blacks are generally considered to be more at risk than white protesters.

“If it had been a minority, the black crowd, they would still put toe tags on individuals today,” Williams said of the rioters on Capitol Hill. “We have to recognize that there is a difference.”

Protesters stand in front of federal agents at the Mark O. Hatfield United States courthouse in Portland, Oregon in early July 24, 2020.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Vera Eidelman, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she hoped the U.S. Capitol debacle would not be cited by officials as a reason to give police more resources and tools to respond to protests massive.

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

Kim Dine, former U.S. Capitol Police Chief, said he hoped the failure of his former agency would prompt U.S. police to improve their response to the increasingly volatile protests – and political conflicts that often feed them.

“It’s a stain on our history that isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” Dine said. “It’s troubling, but I think the policing profession has improved a lot and continues to improve and we need to take responsibility. But we also need to reduce that level of rhetoric that divides the discord between people and fans.


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