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Wednesday’s mob attack on the U.S. Capitol has many disastrous implications for American politics and culture. But at the heart of the matter is a seemingly simple question: How did a motley group of civilians manage to overwhelm the defenses of what should be one of the safest buildings in the country?
Failures on many levels have left the Capitol defenseless for as long as two o’clock Wednesday, and there are still many unknowns. But based on the available evidence, police experts place the blame primarily on the planning failures of the United States Capitol Police Directorate (USCP), a body of more than 2,000 officers tasked with protecting Congress. .
These failures triggered the resignation of USCP Chief Steven A. Sund Thursday evening. Before resigning, however, Sund attempted to justify his department’s failure, saying that while the USCP had “a robust plan” to deal with a planned protest, the day’s turn to “criminal rioting behavior” was unexpected.
Protest and riot police experts have found this explanation to be at odds with the prevalent common practice of handling even truly peaceful protests.
“Anytime you have a crowd-pleaser event, it’s a hope for the best, plan for the worst type of scenario,” said Edward Maguire, director of the Public Safety Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. “As long as there is no current violence, you deploy regular uniforms and use a lot of communication and de-escalation. But you still have several levels of a plan behind the curtain, ”including more heavily armed and armored riot police.
Instead of preparing for the worst, the USCP failed backup offers from the Pentagon and the FBI in the days leading up to the events. It is also unclear why the USCP believed the event would be uniformly peaceful: much of the planning for the rally by the rioters took place on public social media sites and included a large number of explicitly violent threats.
“Each of these police departments has their own intelligence units that should be there scouring social media and plugging into intelligence products distributed by federal agencies,” Maguire says. The Capitol police, adds Maguire, is “not a particularly small department”.
There are two other probable factors in what happened, each linked in a different way to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the summer of 2020.
“Police departments have been rightly criticized for reacting very aggressively and kinetically to some of these previous protests,” says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. The USCP may have felt compelled to take a lighter touch based on this recent experience, with dire consequences.
The fact that right-wing protesters were more likely to be armed may also have led the USCP to take a less militant approach to reducing the risk of deadly violence. But even by this logic, Stoughton finds the lack of a more heavily equipped backup impossible to explain.
“I can’t resolve this tension… It just doesn’t make sense on a purely tactical level,” Stoughton said. “If we have an armed crowd, could we say, we’ll have a soft feel up front. But we will organize the resources we need if the going south. “
Stoughton also believes the poor preparation for the Stop the Steal protest reflects the same police bias that Black Lives Matter activists have marched against.
There was “a fairly noticeable gap in the level of threat some agencies perceived between a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters and a crowd of right-wing protesters,” Stoughton says. “I don’t think we can just say racism, period, and that’s a sufficient explanation. But I think that’s part of the explanation.
In other words, the USCP may have felt fewer threats of violence from armed and predominantly white Stop the Steal protesters than from unarmed and racially diverse Black Lives Matter protesters, based on a biased perception of the different racial makeup of groups.
Whatever the combination of causes, the failure of the planning has left USCP officers in the field overwhelmed. This led to times that seemed to show police tolerance or even collaboration with rioters trying to enter the Capitol.
In a video widely circulated on social media, a USCP officer appears to push aside a barricade and let marchers enter the cordon surrounding the Capitol. This was widely interpreted as police aid to rioters, but reporters at the scene described the police as overwhelmed by the crowd, and Stoughton says the withdrawal was in line with standard tactics in such a situation.
“You withdraw into a different position. If you can, you take the barricades with you.
Likewise, Stoughton believes that the relatively small the number of arrests during the riot was a function of insufficient staff. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, on my own, to try to stop 15 or 20 people.”
“The failure doesn’t come from those individual agents who failed to engage in some sort of reckless last battle,” Stoughton says. “The failure is that they were in this position in the first place.”
Either way, ASU’s Edward Maguire believes Wednesday’s events will only add to the widely held perception that police in the United States are biased toward right-wing causes.
“There is a very strong feeling on the left that the police… operate almost in partnership with the right,” Maguire says. “And when I talk to the right-wing protesters, I hear from them: ‘They are on our side. We have God on our side and we have the police on our side. ”
This, Maguire says, is a long-term threat to law enforcement efforts.
“We need people in a democracy to have confidence in the legitimacy of law enforcement, and not imagine that aid will depend on our political convictions.”
Whatever its causes, the failure of the USCP adds another deep scar to the many inflicted on January 6.
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