In the chaotic minutes before he killed Ashli Babbitt in the January 6 Capitol Riot, Lt. Michael Byrd focused his attention on the glass doors leading to the lobby of the State House of Representatives chamber. -United.
About 60 to 80 House members and staff were holed up inside, and it was Byrd’s job to protect them.
As rioters raged in the Capitol, Byrd and a few other Capitol Police officers put up a wall of furniture outside the doors.
“Once we barricaded the doors, we were basically trapped where we were,” Byrd said in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, speaking publicly for the first time since the riot. “There was no way to retreat. No other way out.
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“If they walk through that door, they come into the House chamber and onto members of Congress,” added Byrd, who allowed NBC News to use his name after authorities refused to release it.
Byrd’s connection to what was going on outside and inside the building was his police radio. For several minutes he crackled with a cascade of alarming messages.
There were cries of officers down. Cries of his colleagues attacked by rioters with chemical agents. A report that an officer’s fingers were torn off.
“It was literally broadcast live,” Byrd said. “I said, ‘OK, this is getting serious.’ “
Soon a horde of protesters arrived. Byrd, a 28-year-old Capitol Police veteran, took a defensive stance with his gun drawn as rioters smashed glass doors.
He said he repeatedly yelled at them to come back. But the crowd continued to advance, and then a lone rioter attempted to walk through one of the gates.
What happened next was caught on video: Byrd fired a shot, hitting Babbitt in the shoulder.
Babbitt, 35, an Air Force veteran and a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, fell to the ground and later died from his injuries.
His death later became a rallying cry for the far right, which described Babbitt as a martyr. Trump himself has said she was murdered and has wrongly suggested that the officer who shot her was working for a high-ranking Democrat.
For Byrd, who is Black, the incident turned his life upside down. He has been in hiding for months after receiving a flood of death threats and racist attacks that began when his name was leaked on right-wing websites.
But in his interview with Holt, Byrd said he had no doubt he made the right decision in light of the circumstances.
“I know that day I saved countless lives,” Byrd said. “I know that members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in danger and in grave danger. And that’s my job.
Byrd said he had no idea if the person he shot was carrying a gun. It wasn’t until later that night that he discovered the rioter was an unarmed woman.
When asked why he pulled the trigger, Byrd replied that it was a “last resort.”
“I tried to wait as long as possible,” he told Holt. “I was hoping and praying that no one would try to enter through these doors. But their failure to abide by them forced me to take appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress, myself and my fellow officers. “
Byrd was cleared by the Justice Department and Capitol Police. Announcing its decision not to charge him, the Justice Department said in April that investigators had examined video footage, physical evidence from the scene, the results of the autopsy and statements by the officer involved. as well as other officers and witnesses.
“The investigation did not reveal any evidence to establish that at the time the officer fired a single shot at Ms. Babbitt, the officer did not reasonably believe it was necessary to do so. to defend themselves or to defend members of Congress and others evacuating the chamber from the House, ”federal prosecutors said in a statement.
“The songs got louder”
The days before January 6 were business as usual for Byrd, a Washington native. He and other Capitol Police officials gathered to review the security plan for Joe Biden’s certification of victory in the 2020 presidential election.
“We didn’t get specific information that would force us to change or adjust our posture,” Byrd said. “At this point it looked like a routine event that I’ve done in the last 28 years of my career. “
Byrd noted that there was a complicating factor: fewer officers were under his command largely because of the Covid-19-related absences.
When hundreds of Trump supporters upset by the election results made their way to Capitol Hill, footage of the violent clashes was broadcast live on television. But Byrd, posted outside the House’s bedroom, was unable to view the footage. He depended on his police radio.
When Byrd began to hear reports of downed officers, he did not know the extent of their injuries. At one point, Byrd said an even more alarming message came over the radio: a gunshot report, which he learned much later to be untrue.
After hearing the radio chatter warning that rioters had violated the building, Byrd said he rushed inside the room and asked House members to hide under their chairs and stay away. away from doors and windows.
He said he told them that homemade bombs had been found near the building and that rioters were using weapons against officers. You need to get your gas masks together, Byrd told them.
And he gave another crucial instruction: he told members of the House to take steps to disguise who they were in case they came face to face with the rioters.
“One of the things that was imperative was advising members to remove their pins to allow them to blend in,” Byrd said. “Take off their jackets, look as much as possible like the staff. “
As Byrd rushed out of the room, he saw the chaplain of the House take the position he had left on the podium. The chaplain began reciting a prayer with members of Congress.
“I believe that was when” the members “also began to believe that serious harm or injury could happen to them,” Byrd said.
Byrd said he and the other officers quickly erected the makeshift barricade using whatever furniture they could find.
“That’s when I realized they were here,” Byrd said, referring to the rioters. “The songs got louder. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it sounded like hundreds of people outside that door.
Video footage shot by a person in the crowd showed two officers stationed outside the door. Strongly outnumbered, they ended up withdrawing.
Byrd said he didn’t know there were any officers there. Because of the furniture stacked on his side of the door, he also couldn’t tell how many people were on the other side or whether they were carrying weapons.
“I couldn’t see what was on the other side,” Byrd said.
But he saw the person, now known to be Babbitt, start to come through the broken glass.
“I couldn’t fully see his hands or what was in the backpack or what the intentions were,” Byrd said. “But they had been violent up to this point. “
It was the first time Byrd had fired his gun in his 28 years in the force. Over the next few minutes, he helped the House members evacuate the building. He said it wasn’t until later that night, when he had a chance to watch television footage, that he understood the full extent of the Capitol Riot.
Attorney for the Babbitt family described the incident as an “ambush”, alleging the officer gave no warning before pulling the trigger. Babbitt’s family have signaled their intention to take civil action against the Capitol Police and had already filed court documents asking for the name of the officer who shot Babbitt.
Family attorney Terry Roberts did not respond to a request for comment.
Byrd said he actually felt a pain in his throat for days after yelling at protesters to stop and back up as they pounded on the glass doors.
Byrd also scoffed at claims by some that he had a political agenda.
“I do my job for Republicans, for Democrats, for whites, for blacks, reds, blues, greens,” he said. “I don’t care about your affiliation. “
He noted that when Trump was president, he had escorted him through Capitol on numerous occasions. “If he was on Capitol Hill and I was responsible for him, I would do the same for him and his family,” Byrd said.
In the days following January 6, Byrd’s name leaked to right-wing media and online forums. Then came the threats.
“They talked about killing me, cutting my head off,” Byrd said, adding that there had also been racist attacks.
“It’s disheartening because I know I was doing my job. “
The hardest part, he said, was the effect on his family. A tear slipped from Byrd’s eye and rolled down his right cheek as he lamented how the life he had built had been turned upside down.
“Sometimes you can’t do anything but cry,” Byrd said, his voice growing heavy. “You felt like you did your job. You helped protect our legislative leaders in this country and you fought for democracy and to keep them in place. “
An incident in Byrd’s past also attracted renewed attention online: In 2019, he left his service weapon in a bathroom, where it was eventually discovered by another officer.
In the NBC News interview, Byrd described the incident as a “terrible mistake.”
“I recognized him. I was penalized for it. I moved on, ”he said.
After remaining silent for seven months as investigations dragged on, Byrd said he wanted to speak out to counter the false claims of his actions that day, even though it exposed him to more threats and threats. vitriol.
“It’s something scary,” Byrd said. “Once again, I believe I showed the greatest courage on January 6, and it is time for me to do so now. “
He said he knows there are people who disagree with his actions that day, and maybe still.
“I hope they will understand that I did my job,” Byrd said. “There was an imminent threat and danger to members of Congress. I just want the truth to be told.