Editor’s note: The following article was published in the February 2021 issue of American Police Beat with information available at the time of publication. Numerous additional details have emerged since then, including testimony in the February impeachment trial of former President Trump as well as ongoing investigations. Some details in this article have been updated from the print version, including figures on the number of officers injured and suspects charged and arrested, plus information on the deaths of Brian Sicknick and Jeffrey Smith. Please continue to follow APB‘s print, online and social media coverage for further developments.
At 12:30 p.m. on January 6, the recently convened 117th Congress was assembled to perform the traditionally perfunctory task of ratifying the votes of State Boards of Elections and certifying the Electoral College, wrapping up the presidential election. At the same time, a crowd of predominantly pro-Trump supporters gathered to hear speeches by President Trump and others decrying the validity of the election results. Then, en masse, they worked their way toward the U.S. Capitol. By 1:15 p.m., the crowd breached barriers and began forcing their way into the building, unleashing an approximately seven-hour incident during which lawmakers were secured away from rioters, property was damaged and allegedly stolen, and havoc besieged the seat of the U.S. federal government.
Live broadcasts of the insurgency solicited prompt reactions from law enforcement leaders.
“For those choosing to use violence and intimidation, we must not permit, condone or support it,” wrote National Sheriffs’ Association President Sheriff David Mahoney in a public statement. “The nation’s sheriffs call upon those in D.C. protesting the outcome of the 2020 election to recognize their actions have dissembled into violence. I further call upon President Trump to call for an immediate end to this criminal behavior and return our country to a calm period. There is no place in our society for violence, criminal damage and physical assaults.”
Patrick Yoes, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), also released a statement: “The actions of some of these demonstrators are endangering our elected officials, Congressional staff, ordinary citizens and the law enforcement officers on the scene. The images coming in from the United States Capitol Building today are heartbreaking to every American. Lawlessness is not how Americans affect change in our great country.”
By day’s end, four people had died — including one woman from an officer-involved shooting — and Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Robert J. Contee III announced dozens of arrests, mostly for curfew violation in the city, as well as the discovery and safe confiscation of two pipe bombs — one outside each of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee offices — a truckful of homemade Molotov cocktail devices and numerous weapons.
Beginning early on the next day, the media, lawmakers and law enforcement authorities began dissecting the events. Criticism of the response by the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) came from all corners — the 1,400 UCSP officers that day were substantially outnumbered by the charging crowd estimated to be in the thousands.
“We weren’t battling 50 or 60 rioters in this tunnel [of the Capitol],” explained Metro P.D. Officer Michael Fanone to The Washington Post. “We were battling 15,000 people. It looked like a medieval battle scene.”
“I certainly thought that we would have had a stronger show of force, that there would have been steps taken in the very beginning to make sure that there was a designated area for the protesters in a safe distance from the Capitol,” noted Rep. Val Demings, D-Florida, a former police chief, in an interview with MSNBC.
“This was a failure of imagination, a failure of leadership. The Capitol Police must do better, and I don’t see how we can get around that,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, told AP News.
“The images coming in from the United States Capitol Building today are heartbreaking to every American. Lawlessness is not how Americans affect change in our great country.”
Resignations from U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate Michael Stenger and Sergeant-at-Arms of the House Paul Irving were precipitously demanded and accepted. And there have been numerous calls for further examination of what intelligence about the various groups in attendance — such as far-right militias, Proud Boys, Boogalo Bois, QAnon conspiracy followers, Oath Keepers and others — was collected and disseminated to law enforcement agencies in the area prior to the event, among other aspects of how the insurgence evolved.
However, there was a lot of praise for how cops responded that day, too. Before leaving his position, Sund commended his force. “Make no mistake, these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior. The actions of the USCP officers were heroic given the situation they faced.”
Attorney General of the District of Columbia Karl A. Racine said on CNN, “The men and women of the Metro Police Department led by Acting Chief Robert Contee, were extraordinarily courageous and heroes on that day.”
Several congressmen also expressed gratitude for how officers protected them.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, told CNN, “The Capitol Police I was around did an amazing job under difficult circumstances.”
“I was proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Capitol police barricading entrance to our sacred House chamber, while trying to calm the situation talking to protestors,” tweeted Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-New York.
As videos recorded by journalists and participants emerged, additional acts of bravery became known, most notably by USCP Officer Eugene Goodman. While being pursued by a mob of rioters, in an instant, Goodman is seen glancing toward the unprotected entrance to the U.S. Senate Chamber and immediately acts to capture the crowd’s attention, even shoving the lead protestor, to draw them away from the Chamber. Video captured him communicating via radio and moving toward another area in the building where backup forces joined him. Additional reporting by The Washington Post indicates Vice President Mike Pence had been escorted out of the Senate Chamber into a secured hideaway only one minute earlier.
Goodman’s quick-thinking actions have been called nothing less than heroic.
In the line of duty
Unfortunately, at least 73 Metro P.D. officers were injured, and about 65 USCP members were hurt. Cops were beaten, hit with barricades and doused with chemical deterrents, some described as bear spray. Many suffered sprains, contusions and irritated lungs.
Fanone was one of the officers dragged down steps and beaten with clubs, including a flagpole holding a thin blue line flag. He told The Washington Post rioters shouted expletives, called him a traitor and threatened to kill him with his own gun while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Fanone also suffered a mild heart attack after being hit six times with a stun gun.
Metro P.D. Officer Daniel Hodges found himself lodged between two glass doors, a crowd of rioters and a battalion of fellow cops. He told reporters his eyes had been gouged, his helmet yanked, and he was bloodied.
“There were points where I thought it was possible I could either die or become seriously disfigured,” he said, admitting he considered using his weapon. “I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day. And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”
USCP Officer Brian D. Sicknick had been in the thick of the melee. The Iraq War veteran eventually made his way back to the division office, where he collapsed, was rushed to the hospital and died the next day. As of early March, the precise cause of his death remained undisclosed, but federal investigators were said to be zeroing in on a suspect who was captured on video appearing to spray a chemical substance on Sicknick during the riot.
Sicknick is the fourth USCP member to be killed in the line of duty in more than 200 years. In honor of his sacrifice, his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda on February 3.
USCP Officer Howard Liebengood also was on scene during the riot, and according to a statement released by his family, Liebengood took his own life a few days later.
“Anytime a member of law enforcement dies in the line of duty, it is a solemn reminder to us all that they run toward danger to maintain peace. The president and the entire administration extend our prayers to Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick’s family as we all grieve the loss of this American hero,” Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement.
“We are reeling from the death of Officer Liebengood,” Gus Papathanasiou, head of the Capitol Police union, said in a statement. “Officer Liebengood was an example of the selfless service that is the hallmark of USCP.”
Flags on the Capitol and White House were lowered to half-staff in honor of the two officers.
On January 28, it was announced that a second officer who defended the Capitol, Metro Police Department Officer Jeffrey Smith, had also died by suicide in the wake of the attack.
Of course, the job wasn’t done once crowds were controlled and dispersed. Investigations into who breached the Capitol building, defaced items, absconded with materials and assaulted officers kicked into high gear immediately. Law enforcement professionals at all levels scoured hundreds of thousands of images and video files to identify individuals, some of who have known associations with the aforementioned groups or movements. The FBI posted digital wanted posters and civilian internet sleuths using crowdsourcing data shared discoveries. Within a week, more than 60 arrests were made. As of March 1, federal prosecutors had charged more than 300 people and arrested more than 280 in connection with the events of January 6.
However, several cops were identified as attending the protest. A lieutenant sheriff from Bexar County, Texas, is now under investigation after she posted pictures of breaking into the Capitol to her personal Facebook page. Officers in New York, Philadelphia and Seattle are under investigation by their departments for potential rules violations, and Acevedo accepted the resignation of a Houston P.D. officer who was in attendance.
“Anytime a member of law enforcement dies in the line of duty, it is a solemn reminder to us all that they run toward danger to maintain peace.”
Two members of the Rocky Mount, Virginia, police force face federal charges for their presence at the Capitol, memorialized by selfies.
“Our town and our police department absolutely does not condone illegal or unethical behavior by anyone, including our officers and staff,” stated town officials, reported by WDBJ7.
What’s more, the behavior of some on-duty officers during the riots is being examined. Within days, two USCP officers were fired, and 15 were under investigation on allegations of taking selfies with rioters, wearing clothing with political sayings and even assisting or directing protestors.
“There’s a big difference between walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and expressing yourself and going into a building where rioters pushed police and hit police and pushed them out of the way to get in,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, explained to CNN. “That will be the question. They just came, and they marched, versus did they go inside the building and become part of a [riot].”
Surely, audits of what happened on January 6, what decisions left law enforcement vulnerable and how to avoid similar circumstances will be underway in the coming months. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General has announced an official investigation. And while there’s sure to be substantial scrutiny by politicians, agency executives, the media and the public, the extraordinary measures exhibited by law enforcement professionals on this now-historic day should remain a constant reminder of how many in this profession are committed to protect and serve.