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Fixing the Capitol Police

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Fixing the Capitol Police

Congress should consider professionalizing the management of its own police force. January 27, 2021
Politics and law
Public safety

After the events of January 6, no one could doubt the U.S. Capitol Police’s lack of preparedness. Nor could anyone miss the very public resignation of Chief Steven Sund and the departures of both the Senate and House sergeants-at-arms.

Less attention has been paid, though, to Sund’s claim that House and Senate security officials denied him permission to request that the D.C. National Guard be placed on standby in case he needed quick backup. Sund has stated that House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving was uncomfortable with the “optics” of declaring an emergency before the demonstration, and that Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger suggested he informally contact the Guard, asking them to “lean forward” and be on alert in case Capitol Police needed their help. Neither of these now-former sergeants-at-arms has responded directly to Sund’s claim. However, Sund’s successor, acting chief Yogananda D. Pittman, confirmed in testimony to the House Appropriations Committee that Sund did ask the Capitol Police Board to authorize a request for National Guard support two days before the demonstration.

Perhaps we should be asking more questions of members of Congress, the individuals ultimately responsible for overseeing one of the largest police forces protecting federal employees and property. The board to which the Capitol Police reports is overseen by members of Congress and comprised of the Senate and House sergeants-at-arms, the Capitol’s architect, and the chief of police (ex-officio). Fiscal power rests with subcommittees chaired in the House by Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan and in the Senate by Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith; together, they control the more than $450 million spent to maintain almost 2,500 police officers and civilians. Other authority rests with the Committee on House Administration, chaired by California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, and with the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, chaired by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.

Neither of the congressional sergeants-at-arms is a law-enforcement official. Nor are members of Congress. Their many duties should not include managing a police department that would rank just below the tenth-largest municipal police department in the country—larger than the police departments of San Francisco, Detroit, San Antonio, Boston, and Memphis.

Until Pittman’s appointment, Capitol Police chiefs had been tapped from outside the agency. Sund had been chief for less than two years and had only joined the Capitol Police in 2017 as a deputy chief, following a 27-year career with Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. His predecessor had spent most of his more than 30 years in law enforcement with the U.S. Supreme Court Police. Pittman, who has been with the Capitol Police since 2001, is its first female and first black chief and was responsible for security planning for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

Whatever the constitutionality, the merits, the results—and the optics—of impeaching a president who is no longer in office, and amid its professed concerns about policing in America, Congress might consider taking some time to professionalize the management of its own police department and to identify its own failures in oversight.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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