USA TODAY International Edition

‘ We needed more support,’ Capitol Police officer says

Agency is characteri­zed as adrift, lacking in trust

- Kevin McCoy, Cara Kelly and Dennis Wagner

Caroline Edwards suffered a head injury when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U. S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Fueled by adrenaline, the Capitol Police officer said she battled armed insurrecti­onists, white supremacis­ts and other rioters for hours.

At one point, Edwards said, she pulled out a container of chemical spray to repel attackers. But she said a supervisor told her to put it away.

“I had a concussion. I felt at the very least I should be able to use pepper spray to deal with what was going on,” said Edwards, who is the executive

treasurer of the Capitol Police labor committee. She has been on medical leave since the assault.

Edwards, 31, a Capitol Police officer for about four years, is one of the first members of the department to speak about the riot and its aftermath.

She characteri­zed the department as adrift, with inadequate planning before the attack, silence and mixed messages from supervisor­s that day, and now a lack of trust of top leadership by rankand- file officers.

Front- line officers weren’t informed of the potential for large- scale violence, Edwards said. But leadership did know, the department’s acting chief told Congress afterward.

As attackers moved in, Edwards said, officers felt let down by top supervisor­s. Now, officers have discussed holding a vote of no confidence in the leadership. “The safety of every congressma­n, every aide, everybody in the Capitol that day, was solely reliant on rank- and- file officers making individual actions,” Edwards said. “That’s what I want people to understand.”

Experts say the mental health toll, from the hand- to- hand combat to the public perception that the agency failed protect the Capitol, will be difficult to get over.

“Being characteri­zed as overwhelme­d and ill- prepared does tremendous damage to the psyche of police officers,” said Thomas Coghlan, adjunct professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York City police detective.

“It puts into the public mind that not only is your agency incompeten­t or illprepare­d,” he said, “but you as an officer are incompeten­t or ill- prepared.”

Weeks later, trauma persists

Five people died in the attack, including Officer Brian Sicknick and a woman who was shot by police while trying to breach the House side near the speaker’s chamber.

Two more officers there that day – one with the Capitol Police, another with the District of Columbia’s Metropolit­an Police Department – died by suicide in the weeks after the riot, acting D. C. Police Chief Robert Contee told Congress last month. It’s unclear whether the deaths were tied to the violence at the Capitol.

In all, 125 Capitol Police officers were physically assaulted, and more than 70 were injured, Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman said Friday. That doesn’t include officers from the Metropolit­an Police Department and other agencies that came to help repel rioters.

Congressio­nal committees are investigat­ing intelligen­ce and logistical failures that allowed attackers to overpower officers and break into the Capitol. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has appointed a retired general to lead a review of security and has called for a commission modeled after the one that investigat­ed the 9/ 11 attacks.

“In preparatio­n for Jan. 6, ( officers) had been working 12- hour shifts for days and days and days. ... That took a toll,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D- Ohio. He chairs the House subcommitt­ee that oversees the Capitol Police.

In a video statement, Pittman, who took over the agency after Chief Steven Sund resigned after the riot, said officers are getting time to rest.

“The Capitol Police officers who were on the front lines performed bravely in the face of extraordin­ary violence and destructio­n,” Pittman said. “The damage extends beyond their physical injuries. From a mental health perspectiv­e, many are understand­ably struggling.”

Officers have around- the- clock access to peer support and counselors “to help them process the trauma they experience­d,” she said.

But the relationsh­ip between officers and leadership may be tougher to heal. “There’s a lot of animosity there,” Ryan said.

The department has barred officers from discussing the event, which Edwards said has made some feel they can’t defend themselves. USA TODAY contacted dozens of officers; Edwards was the only one who agreed to talk because she is on the union’s executive committee.

Capitol Police declined to respond to Edwards’ statements. A spokeswoma­n provided a statement describing the agency’s actions since the attack, saying it “has been focused on taking care of our employees, ensuring that the Congress and the U. S. Capitol are safe and secure, and ensuring that the incidents that occurred on Jan. 6 never happen again.”

Officers were vastly outnumbere­d by rioters that day. “There’s no training you can give for 10,000 versus 1,000,” Edwards said. “We needed more support. We fought as long and as hard as we could. I think that is not necessaril­y being conveyed. That day, my friends and colleagues were heroes.”

‘ Why were we unprepared?’

Edwards described a litany of failings by Capitol Police leaders that began before Jan. 6.

Although Pittman told Congress the department knew there was “a strong potential for violence and that Congress was the target,” Edwards said that wasn’t communicat­ed to rank- and- file officers. Nor were those officers given equipment to counter an attack or provided with contingenc­y plans.

“If upper management knew this was not going to be like any other protest … then why were we unprepared for it? I don’t know,” Edwards said.

Edwards said she is riot- trained and has full riot gear – including a helmet – but she was sent out without the equipment.

According to a USA TODAY investigat­ion, budgetary constraint­s are not a problem for the force when it comes to buying gear. In 2017, Capitol Police spent nearly $ 10 million in six months on tactical gear, digital infrastruc­ture and related supplies. It spent an additional half- million dollars on controlled explosives and ammunition and almost a quarter of a million on external training.

Yet, Edwards said the department scrambled to get helmets for some officers the day before the riot. Those efforts were still underway when the riot erupted.

According to videos, photos and court documents reviewed by USA TODAY, the bulk of officers on duty that day wore shirtsleev­es and jackets, with little visible protection. Many rioters were outfitted in bulletproo­f vests, militaryst­yle helmets and gas masks.

Facebook posts attributed to Capitol Police officers have vented frustratio­n and responded to critics who questioned whether officers allowed rioters into the Capitol. Some posts have shared videos showing officers fighting to hold off fierce mobs. A few lashed out at the lack of leadership, protective gear and backup.

Edwards declined to say how she was injured, citing criminal investigat­ions of the riot. But court documents describe head injuries and assaults against officers.

Though Edwards was told not to use chemical irritant, that was just one weapon employed by the attackers as they forced their way into the building, according to court records and videos reviewed by USA TODAY.

Some used makeshift weapons against officers: a lacrosse stick, baseball bats, even parts of the scaffolding for the upcoming inaugurati­on. An officer was stabbed with a mental fence stake, Gus Papathanas­iou, the union chairman for the Capitol Police Department, said in a statement.

As officers on the ground waited for backup, rioters called for reinforcem­ents. Gina Bisignano screamed into a bullhorn outside a portico on the west side of the Capitol, where officers fought to keep rioters out of the building, according to court documents.

According to an affidavit for her arrest, Bisignano yelled: “Everybody, we need gas masks … we need weapons … we need strong, angry patriots to help our boys.” Seconds later, a rioter began beating an officer with a baseball bat.

With no apparent strategy from department commanders, Edwards said, individual officers were forced to make impromptu decisions amid the chaos.

Edwards said officers in her division “asked the day before the riot what the department­al procedures were about how to deal with a protester who is armed, and others around him are not.” The answer from sergeants and lieutenant­s, she said, was they didn’t know.

‘ Why did I live?’

Metropolit­an Police officers who came to defend the Capitol were injured in some of the most violent incidents of the day. Sixty- five of them documented injuries, Contee told Congress.

One, referred to as Officer B. M. in court records, was pulled down a set of stairs on the west side of the building. He was held face- down on his stomach as a rioter, later identified as Jeffrey Sabol, held a baton across his neck. Peter Stager used a flagpole, an American flag still attached, to beat the officer, according to court documents.

Edwards credited D. C. police with preventing an even worse outcome. “I’m not sure I would be here without the efforts of the Metropolit­an Police Department,” she said.

Post- traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia, hypervigil­ance, avoidance, suicide and other conditions are a daily risk for more than 800,000 U. S. law enforcemen­t officers in about 18,000 agencies.

During an average career, a police officer experience­s 188 critical incidents that overwhelms his or her ability to cope, said David Black, a clinical psychologi­st who has done hundreds of violence risk assessment­s. Most Americans suffer five to 10.

The most severe of those events involve death and injury to officers, Black said.

But he and other experts noted that Capitol Police were bombarded with additional stresses that compound emotional pain: feelings of betrayal by leadership or colleagues, public criticism, shame at being overwhelme­d, disciplina­ry investigat­ions, criminal cases.

Rep. French Hill, R- Ark., said everyone at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was traumatize­d, and officers seemed “emotionall­y, physically drained beyond belief.”

The psycho- emotional toll on police from traumatic events like the Capitol insurrecti­on has been documented before: the 9/ 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the 2016 rampage in Las Vegas that left 61 dead at an outdoor concert.

“The important thing for everyone to remember is that our brains and our bodies are processing the experience, and a whole range of normal responses are expressed,” notes a Department of Justice guide to dealing with masscasual­ty events.

“Some officers may feel fine but worry that something’s wrong with them because they feel fine,” it says. “Some officers may start asking ‘ why’ questions … ‘ Why did I live when others did not?’ ‘ Why did God allow this to happen?’”

Carleton Jenkins, president of the U. S. Capitol Police Retired Officers Associatio­n, was on duty in 1998 when a man with a history of mental illness shot and killed Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut and Special Agent John Gibson.

“When you go through something like this, you have problems sleeping for months,” Jenkins said. “It stays with you.”

A 2018 report by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administra­tion found that nearly half of the New York City police officers who responded to the 9/ 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center experience­d depression and anxiety.

Nationally, 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions stemming from traumatic events. While police slayings get public attention, officers die from suicide more often than homicide, according to research.

Sherri Martin, national director of wellness for the Fraternal Order of Police, said post- trauma stress and anxiety may grow amid investigat­ions, discipline and officers’ testimony for criminal cases.

“It’s not like if you’re OK this week or month, no problem,” said Martin, who spent 23 years in law enforcemen­t before moving to counseling. “This incident – what happened at the Capitol – may resurface five years from now.”

 ?? JULIO CORTEZ/ AP ?? Rioters attack the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington.
JULIO CORTEZ/ AP Rioters attack the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington.
 ?? POOL PHOTO BY ERIN SCHAFF ?? U. S. Capitol Police officers pay their respects to fellow officer Brian Sicknick as he lies in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Feb. 2. Sicknick, 42, died in a hospital the day after a mob stormed the building.
POOL PHOTO BY ERIN SCHAFF U. S. Capitol Police officers pay their respects to fellow officer Brian Sicknick as he lies in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Feb. 2. Sicknick, 42, died in a hospital the day after a mob stormed the building.
 ?? J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ AP ?? Yogananda Pittman, acting Capitol Police chief, said officers performed bravely during the assault Jan. 6, but “many are understand­ably struggling.”
J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ AP Yogananda Pittman, acting Capitol Police chief, said officers performed bravely during the assault Jan. 6, but “many are understand­ably struggling.”
 ?? CQ ROLL CALL VIA AP IMAGES ?? Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who resigned the day after the riot, said he had asked for National Guard support days before Jan. 6 but was denied.
CQ ROLL CALL VIA AP IMAGES Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who resigned the day after the riot, said he had asked for National Guard support days before Jan. 6 but was denied.

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