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GAO’s Capitol Police Survey Finds a Need for Improved Training, Leadership and Communication

Last January’s attack on the Capitol raised concerns about the preparation of Capitol Police officers to respond to violent demonstrations.

After speaking with officers who were working on the day of the attack, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has made five recommendations to address the issues reported. The recommendations form part of one in a series of reports from GAO concerning the attack, which focuses on preparation. GAO has previously reported on the Capitol Police’s physical security planning efforts leading up to January 6, 2021 and how the Capitol Police responded to the January 6, 2021 events, including the processes for obtaining support from other agencies.

At the time of the attack, the Capitol Police had established department-wide use of force and crowd control policies. The policy states that officers are only authorized to use the level of force that appears reasonably necessary to bring a subject under control while protecting the lives of officers and others. Additionally, officers are expected to evaluate and respond to situations based on the totality of circumstances that can include the number of people the officer must contend with.

The department sends new officers to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers and its own Capitol Police Academy for training. The Capitol Police provides all officers with 40 hours of entry-level Civil Disturbance Unit (CDU) training, even if they are not ultimately assigned to the unit. The department equips and trains all officers on the use of a baton, chemical spray, and a firearm, and some officers are trained on other types of force, such as less-lethal munitions (e.g., chemical and kinetic impact).

According to Capitol Police payroll data and information, there were 1,840 Capitol Police officers on the force as of January 6, 2021. Of these, approximately 81 percent (1,482) of officers were on duty at the Capitol complex at some point that day. More than half of these officers on duty (over 900) were assigned to the Uniformed Services Bureau in the normal course of their duties related to protecting the Capitol complex. Further, all seven CDU platoons (approximately 276 officers), as well as all members of CERT (27 officers), were present on January 6, 2021.

About 150 Capitol Police officers reported 293 use of force incidents using various types of force against attackers on January 6. After the events, the Capitol Police determined that all use of force incidents were justified. The most prevalent force reported was empty hand control techniques (e.g., pushing) (91 incidents), followed by batons (83), withdrawing a firearm from its holster (37), chemical spray (34), other physical tactics (22), pointing a firearm at an individual (17), less-lethal munitions (7), a diversionary device (1), and firing a firearm (1).

Guidance lacking

Some 315 officers completed GAO’s survey. There were mixed views among respondents on whether they felt prepared to use force and apply crowd control tactics during the attack. Related to use of force, 207 felt well or somewhat prepared and 96 felt slightly or not at all prepared. Related to crowd control tactics, 134 felt well or somewhat prepared and 153 felt slightly or not at all prepared.

Most respondents indicated that preoperational guidance (211) or guidance provided during the attack (209) was slightly clear, not at all clear, or not provided. In comparison, fewer respondents indicated that preoperational guidance (45) or guidance during the attack (29) was somewhat or very clear.

Some respondents complimented their fellow officers, both from within the Capitol Police force as well as other law enforcement agencies who supported them that day. One respondent stated, “At least in my experience, I had officials who weren’t afraid to do what needed to happen and stepped up and gave us directions after not getting anything from the higher ups.” A further 24 respondents praised the actions of officers from other law enforcement agencies, particularly the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. For example, one respondent stated, “Having other agencies who were better equipped and provided more manpower helped to slow down the rate of people breaching the building and restored order as quickly as we could. Without that, the department would not have been able to hold off the mob ourselves.”

Common themes among officers

Based on responses to open-ended questions, GAO identified common themes among respondents: Perceived discouragement from using force, more training desired, equipment shortcomings, and leadership concerns.

80 respondents said they felt discouraged or hesitant to use force, with over half fearing disciplinary actions. GAO found that the Capitol Police has taken actions to clarify use of force, such as issuing additional guidance to officers and conducting briefings in which its Office of General Counsel addressed common misconceptions related to use of force. However, in October 2021, officials stated that misconceptions related to use of force have been persistent both before and after the attack. 

180 officers told GAO that more training was needed, including crowd control, very large or violent crowd control, and more realistic training. GAO found that the Capitol Police has trained additional officers on crowd control tactics and less-lethal force and obtained additional protective and less-lethal force equipment using supplemental appropriations. However, officials stated that their current focus is on improving training for the CDU and that they do not have plans to improve training for non-CDU officers. But these non-CDU officers, who represent more than 80 percent of officers, may also be called upon to provide crowd control in emergencies. Officials also told GAO that offering more realistic training (e.g., in-person) is challenging because it requires that officers be pulled from their posts, which may lead to paying officers for overtime. 

Several respondents identified a need to address certain topics in training related to what actions to take once they have lost control of the crowd, such as what to do if the crowd flanks your police line or how to take back control of the building after it has been breached. For example, one respondent stated that the officer had not received information on the evacuation of Members of Congress, command posts, rally points, casualty collection points, and egress routes.

Equipment functionality and availability also came under the spotlight. 108 survey respondents commented that more protective equipment is needed, including helmets, riot gear, and shields. Some officers noted that their gear was old or of poor quality and that it was difficult to move around in the hard gear. For example, one respondent stated that some of the Capitol Police’s riot gear is 20 years old and is handed down from officer to officer over time. Several respondents also suggested that better carrier vests and belts were needed to hold more items. Several respondents commented that they were not all equipped with a baton or chemical spray during the January 6 attack.

The Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021, appropriated about $2.6 million to the Capitol Police to fund various civil disturbance unit equipment and physical barriers. The Capitol Police reported in June 2021 that it was working to develop a policy that addresses all procedures regarding equipment standards and life cycle management based on manufacturer recommendations. As of October 2021, the Capitol Police has obtained additional rectangular 4-foot shields, round shields, compressed air launchers, kinetic impact munitions, chemical munitions, and diversionary devices since the January 6 attack. The department has also ordered additional less-lethal 40 mm launchers, compressed air launchers, sets of protective equipment (e.g., gloves and gas masks), helmets, and long riot batons, all of which officials stated they had not yet received due to supply chain delays.

In terms of the physical security of the building, respondents made suggestions for improvement, such as the creation of a permanent fence, installing stronger doors and windows, adding more substantive barriers, adding more closed-circuit television cameras, and installing fencing with screening checkpoints. One respondent said that in the past, “aesthetics and the historical nature of infrastructure has trumped security needs.” Another respondent commented that contractors who are in charge of fixing alarms and magnetic locks should be held accountable for poor performance, as magnetic locks failed during the attack.

Many respondents had concerns with the department. 151 identified concerns or offered suggestions related to leadership, with some noting that there had been a lack of leadership and communication on January 6, 2021, and that leadership needed to be changed or improved. 

GAO noted in its report that the department used 2021 supplemental appropriations to fund retention bonuses, hazard pay, and initiatives related to mental health. However, officials told the watchdog that the department has faced long-term morale issues. For example, analysis of the Capitol Police’s employee viewpoint surveys since 2016 identified similar themes shown by GAO’s survey, such as concerns related to morale, promotions, and leadership. Given the severity of the attack and the likely long-standing nature of the concerns, GAO believes matters may not be resolved quickly and said there is an opportunity for the department to identify underlying causes for employee concerns and develop a responsive action plan.

Preparing for future attacks

The government watchdog’s recommendations aim to address the concerns raised by officers in the survey. GAO wants the Capitol Police to:

  • better understand officers’ comprehension of the department’s expectations and policies related to use of force, including identifying underlying causes for potential officer hesitancy to use force;
  • make changes, as appropriate, to policy, guidance, and training to address findings from actions taken to better understand officers’ comprehension of the department’s expectations and policies related to the use of force;
  • provide more refresher crowd control training to prepare all officers, including those who are not part of the CDU, for large-scale and potentially violent demonstrations;
  • provide officers with more realistic training; and
  • identify underlying factors related to employee concerns with the department following the January 6 attack and develop an action plan to address these issues.

Capitol Police officials told GAO that they valued the input their officers provided in the survey as the department seeks to address challenges following the January 6 attack. The department agreed with each of GAO’s recommendations and has begun to take steps to address them.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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