Capitol Hill Police issues were documented well before riots

Amelia Strauss, a policy adviser at Demand Progress, has studied the strengths and shortcomings of the Capitol Hill Police since way before the riots.

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Capitol Hill Police made prime spots in the news in the last couple of weeks for all the wrong reasons. Because of failures that worsened at the riot situation in early January, suddenly everyone is examining it. Amelia Strauss, a policy adviser at Demand Progress, has studied the strengths and shortcomings of the Capitol Hill Police since way before the riots. She joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Miss Strauss, good to have you.

Amelia Strauss: Thanks for having me, Tom.

Tom Temin: So give us a sense of the size and scope and the cost of the Capitol Hill Police. It’s not a trivial thing, is it?

Amelia Strauss: Yeah, you know, before a few weeks ago, I would say it was the largest police force you’ve never heard of. Their budget is $550 million, about half a billion. They employ 2,300 folks and their jurisdiction with all those resources, it’s less than two square miles. That said they have the crucial mission of keeping the Capitol Complex safe and open for business. And that includes members, employees, staff and visitors.

Tom Temin: All right. And you also have looked into the transparency of the oversight, whether the reports are available, whether the complaint reporting that they received are made available to the public, and they don’t operate exactly in broad daylight, do they?

Amelia Strauss: Right. And I should just add to my earlier point, Capitol Police was not always such a monstrous department. Right now, in terms of staff, they ranked in the top 20 Municipal departments nationally. In terms of their budget, they can compete with places like Austin, Texas; Detroit, but back in 1995, over 25 years ago, they were just 3% of the legislative branch budget. Now it’s almost 10. So with that increase in spending, there needs to be transparency and accountability. The issue is there’s not. The reason: Capitol Police is a unique department. It’s not just a regular security force. It’s not a police department. It’s not a legislative branch agency. It’s all three of these things together, which means certain oversight rules that these different types of entities usually comply with might not apply, or the department can circumvent these. So the issue we’ve seen is in terms of transparency, back in 2018, when I started looking into the department, they had 10 to 20 press releases on their website, and that was pretty much the only information that was publicly available. On top of that, information in those press releases didn’t match press reporting. For example, the number of people arrested at a given protest would say 300 on the Washington Post and 200 from Capitol Police. So that’s pretty murky in terms of how they’re using these vast resources. Since then, there’s been some small improvements. Starting December 2018, they started posting weekly arrest summaries about incidents, but only after prodding from overseers and Congress and civil society. That wasn’t something they proactively chose to do.

Tom Temin: Just get a sense to by the way of how far out from beyond the Capitol Hill does their jurisdiction extend?

Amelia Strauss: Yeah, so for this is going to be for D.C. locals. I’m not sure it will mean much to other folks but it goes all the way up to H Street and Union Station on the north. It goes down to Navy Yard in the south out to Eastern Market in the east. And to the west, it goes to about 3rd Street, so the highway that runs through there.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so that’s probably maybe a fifth of the city almost, maybe not quite that much, maybe, probably –

Amelia Strauss: It’s a little less than two square miles. So I can’t say for sure what the area of D.C. is off the top of my head, but –

Tom Temin: Originally, it was 100 square miles. Now it’s, you know, the piece that went off to Virginia. So it’s something in that I guess, around 60 square miles so, after 1848. All right, and in your opinion, the way it operates somewhat secretly – let’s get to the point of Jan. 6. How do you think that situation got to the point where it was so overwhelmed? I mean, it’s trickling out bit by bit.

Amelia Strauss: To put a point on the transparency – FOIA doesn’t apply to Capitol Police. So we don’t know what kind of preparations were going into Jan. 6. What I do know I’ve learned from amazing reporting by the press. I have not learned this from the department directly. But the department was aware of threats. There was an internal intelligence memo going around a couple of days before, but the National Guard request for standby was rebuffed. So in other words, this kind of event was foreseeable. I’m not in the intel community and my colleagues and I were talking about it a year ago, what happens if Trump loses and his supporters show up and they’re armed at the Capitol? So that’s part of the issue. And then the other thing is, we’re seeing disparate application of the vast resources the department has. As I mentioned at the top, huge resources – this wasn’t a money issue, this wasn’t a manpower issue. The reports I’ve seen is that they had a standard number of police come to work that day, as opposed to Black Lives Matters protests over the summer following the murder of George Floyd. It was all hands on deck, according to quotes from officers, I think, in BuzzFeed News. So this wasn’t a money issue. It wasn’t a resource issue. It was a communication and transparency issue. I can’t go into more detail because as I mentioned before, it’s really hard to get information about the department operations. I’m hoping investigations by overseers will bring some of these issues to light because that’s the only way we can improve and ensure that our legislature stays safe.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Amelia Strauss, policy advisor with Demand Progress. And over the years the Capitol Hill Police has been plagued with occasional reports of sexual misconduct, unequal treatment of women and people of color coming up through the ranks. And my question is, why doesn’t Congress, which states its care for these types of issues in every other federal agency in every other part of American life, not look what’s going on in its own half-billion-dollar police force?

Amelia Strauss: Right. That’s a great question, Tom. And to some members of Congress’ credit, they have started looking at these issues. The Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee, which funds the department, had a bunch of transparency initiatives, including reporting around race and ethnicity demographics within the department in the last appropriations bill. Over in the Committee on House Administration, which also authorizes the department, there has been oversight hearings, which brought a lot of these issues to light. For example, the union chair for the Capitol Police presented proof that there’s disparate discipline within the department against women and people of color compared to their white colleagues. On the Senate we haven’t seen the appetite for this kind of reform. I think what’s starting in the House is great, but it needs to keep moving forward. I also highly recommend Dr. James Jones’ most recent article in The Daily Beast – it really goes through these issues at the department of what’s necessary.

Tom Temin: What reforms are necessary?

Amelia Strauss: Publication of information is the first step. I know I sound like a broken record at this point but transparency is not just for transparency’s sake, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what’s going on. The department publishes complaint information against employees. Most of those complaints come from within the department, but you don’t get any other information about what the complaints are about. Based on the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” kind of theory, I would imagine there’s some racial discrimination and gender discrimination issues within those complaints. I would love to see more details published with those complaints so we can figure out what the issues are and how to proceed. There also needs to be accountability at the top management needs to be held accountable both for their actions and the people who report to them. There has to be a zero tolerance policy for this kind of racial and gender based discrimination behavior.

Tom Temin: Well, I guess maybe now is about the best time or the best opportunity for these kinds of reforms to happen at all if they’re going to, because haven’t they had some decent chiefs that have tried to reform things?

Amelia Strauss: Yeah, you know, this has been an issue from chief to chief. I applaud Congress for holding leadership accountable and clearing house but that’s not the answer here. This has been an issue for decades. So what we see when that is the case is that it’s a structural problem. It’s not necessarily just an individual or a bad actor. Here’s my takeaway: What we want is a safe legislature, an open legislature. That includes the officers themselves, the Capitol Police needs to be taking responsibility for its management. And a great way to do that is communicating with the public, being transparent about what’s happening, so as many smart minds as possible can say, “Hey, what do we need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

Tom Temin: Amelia Strauss is a policy adviser with Demand Progress. Thanks so much.

Amelia Strauss: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to more information at Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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