Early lessons from the Capitol Building attack

A public building protest should not surprise any police leader, especially when organizers clearly state that as their intent


On January 6, 2021, a mob, many of whom had proclaimed allegiance to President Trump, attacked the U.S. Capitol Building to thwart the certification of the 2020 Presidential election.

The violent attack resulted in the death of Officer Brian Sicknick, 42, the shooting death of one attacker as she tried to gain access to the U.S. House of Representatives and the deaths of three participants from medical emergencies. In addition, Officer Howard Liebengood, 51, died of suicide three days later.

By now dozens of videos, in-depth news reports and first-person accounts have detailed the events leading up to the insurgency, the actions of the mob inside the building, the arrests of many participants and the ongoing investigation, which is sure to continue for months and years. Despite being able to live stream the incident, each new video – like this one of an officer being dragged from the Capitol Building or this report of the heroic actions of Police Officer Eugene Goodman to lead protestors away from the Senate – increases our understanding of the severity and impact of the incident. It will be years before we comprehend how significant the tragic events of that day were on our nation.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Responding to an attack on democracy

I have been turning over the day in my mind nearly non-stop while reading news reports and watching videos. My dominant emotion is anger at the insurrectionists, their attack on the foundations of democracy, and the death and injury they unleashed on the officers sworn to protect our elected officials, the Capitol building itself and the ideals that lie within the building.

My anger is tempered by and fueled by the tragic loss of life. Officer Sicknick was upholding his oath to enforce the law and protect life and property. I am sad for his family, friends and colleagues who are mourning his unnecessary death.

Instead of staying trapped in a cycle of anger and grief, I am trying to identify early lessons from the events of January 6 that law enforcement, elected officials and other public safety agencies might be able to apply to future mass gatherings and crowd management opportunities. Here are my reflections to contribute to the process of minimizing property destruction and loss of life at future incidents.

The unwinnable tension of warrior vs. guardian

Law enforcement officers continue to find themselves in an unwinnable and untenable situation. We can’t expect law enforcement to be warriors when they are prepared and equipped to be guardians. The metal barricades around the Capitol building were easily breached by the mob and most of the officers holding the line were lacking helmets, shields, or other tactical gear, not to mention back-up or a plan to retreat to a defensible position. If officers had opened fire at insurrectionists, especially before they entered the building, those actions would likely be broadly condemned.

As the incident unfolded and in the early reporting, it was clear that officers on the front line weren’t working with a response plan aligned with the potential threat of hostilities. We are still waiting for evidence that the top law enforcement leaders were acting on the same videos the nation was watching or reports from their officers on the front line to call in reinforcements from neighboring city, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Police leaders, including US Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund, who resigned from his position on January 7, have already begun to deflect blame and question the motives of others for the failure to have adequate assets in place before the protest transformed into a violent mob.

We also can’t expect law enforcement to be guardians when we equip them like warriors. If every USCP officer had been kitted in full tactical gear, supported by a plan and briefing to repel any attacker with the appropriate use of force, would the outcome of the January 6 attack have been different? The counter-factual hypothetical is unanswerable, but it is worth considering what display of strength, use of force early in the conflict and rapid deployment of an overwhelming number of additional officers could have repelled the attack and instead turned the event into a largely peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights with isolated incidents of violence.

The tension between warrior and guardian is being exploited in all quarters, especially by the media and politicians, regardless if they profess to be pro-law enforcement or critical of policing. Half the population is screaming “too much force” while the other half is screaming “too little force.”

Law enforcement, caught in the middle, needs to proactively contribute to resolving this tension. The tools and techniques for crowd management are too often subject to reactionary review of individual incidents without a broader perspective on how to find the proper balance between warrior or guardian or the ability to dynamically deploy to an incident and change as an incident unfolds.

We saw this coming

It is time to retire the tired phrase, “We never saw this coming.” There are countless examples of an impassioned crowd or enraged mob overcoming barriers, swarming over and around a protective force and otherwise reasonable people, whipped into an adrenaline-fueled frenzy violently behaving out of character.

Students have been rushing the field after unexpected and dramatic victories for generations. I was at Camp Randal Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin on October 30, 1993, when thousands of spectators rushed the field after the Wisconsin football team defeated Michigan. Storming the field that afternoon injured 69 people.  

Despite warnings and promises of punishment, like expulsion, jailing or fines, fans still rush the field. Fans swarming out of the stands and onto the field is so common that on November 7, 2020, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly warned his players in a pre-game prediction that fans would rush the field after the Irish beat Clemson that night.

Though football fans storming the field or basketball fans storming the court are usually jubilant and injuries are accidental it is within each of us to mimic the worst behaviors of the crowd we are with and move as a wave without thought of norms, rules or consequences. The January 6 insurrection was planned in plain sight with clearly stated goals to take over the U.S. Capitol and punish elected officials for certifying the election of President-elect Biden. The known pre-event intelligence, coupled with numerous historic examples of crowds overwhelming police, security and barriers, is further indictment of the failure of police leaders to better prepare. A public building protest should not surprise any police leader, especially when organizers clearly state that as their intent.

In 2011 protestors occupied the Wisconsin state capitol for nearly a month. Protestors slept in the rotunda and prepared meals in meeting rooms as tens of thousands of people protested outside the capitol building.

On May 1, 2020, hundreds of demonstrators, some of them legally armed, entered the Michigan state capitol building to protest pandemic-related stay-at-home orders. Confrontations between angry protestors shouting at police officers were broadcast around the world. Some armed protestors were blocked by state police from entering the state’s senate chamber. Chants of “Let us in!” and “This is the people’s house” were repeated by the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol seven months later.

Throughout the summer, after the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, rioters unleashed mayhem and destruction on cities across the United States. On May 28, 2020, rioters set fire to a Minneapolis police station after forcing the department to abandon the building. They used social media tools in plain sight to organize events, share tactics, broadcast law enforcement movements and brag about conquests and destruction. That these same tools would be used to plan an attack on the U.S. Capitol and live broadcast mayhem, destruction and death should never again surprise anyone.

New crowd management tactics needed

In an interview with NBC News, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said, “There is a general recognition that the playbook police used to use for demonstrations is out of date.”

Part of that recognition needs to consider how the crowd is perceiving law enforcement. During the summer demonstrations, protestors were responding, rightly or wrongly, to the actions of law enforcement officers. The police were the focus of their attention. Law enforcement officers, vehicles and buildings also became the target of rioters and violent bad actors.

Watching videos from the Capitol, the crowd seemed to treat the police not as a target, but as an obstacle or barrier to go around, over or through. In some instances, the mob swept past police officers who were holding doors open. Tragically, though Officer Sicknick was killed, and many officers were injured when they attempted to use force against the mob.

As the crowd management playbook is reviewed and refined, the importance of crowd psychology is worth considering. Watching videos, especially the minutes leading up to the police shooting of a woman who was trying to push past officers, I was struck by the frenzied behavior of the crowd. The shouting, frantic movements and loss of decision-making ability were akin to stimulant drug intoxication or a massive adrenaline rush. When confronted with stress, the powerful sympathetic nervous system floods the body with adrenaline, which raises the heart rate, constricts blood vessels, narrows eyesight and shifts brain function to the primitive, non-rational lizard brain. All of which prepare the body for fight or flight.

Crowd control tactics that give a mass gathering space to disperse and remove the primary instigators likely have bearing for future crowd management planning. After the push to take the building and the dispersion of people throughout the massive Capitol Building without a clear foe or purpose the adrenaline rush for many of the occupants wore off. Rudderless, leaderless and exhausted from hours of stressful conflict they wandered the building like tourists, posing for photos and searching for mementos. The loss of life and damage could have been immeasurably worse if the largely leaderless mob had more competent leadership or a clearer sense of purpose.  

VIP protection

The attack on the U.S. Capitol is another reminder of the vulnerability of VIPs and the importance of updating policies, procedures and training for the law enforcement officials entrusted with their protection. It is also a reminder that VIPs, especially elected officials, need to be willing collaborators in their protection.

Again, we should not be surprised that insurrectionists, even if haphazardly, were targeting specific elected officials, their staff and their offices. On July 19, the son of New Jersey federal court judge Esther Salas was shot and killed by an attacker disguised as a delivery driver on the front porch of the family home. Salas’ husband was also shot.

In October 2018 a Florida man sent 16 improvised explosive devices to 13 victims throughout the country, including 11 current or former U.S. government officials. Six men were indicted in December 2020 for a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

In recent years, elected officials, their staff and families have been verbally accosted in restaurants, in airports and on planes. This trend of confrontation in non-official public places seems to be escalating and the transition from verbal to physical attack could come suddenly.

There are warning signs that those physical attacks may come soon. The homes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were vandalized on January 1, 2021. Even if both houses were unoccupied at the time, it seems incomprehensible to me that vandals could reach the front door and garage door of the respective homes without triggering a swift law enforcement response.

The willingness and increasing audacity of extremists to confront and attack elected officials in their homes, workplaces and in public spaces is not new and may get worse before it gets better. Law enforcement leaders should not only be rapidly applying the early lessons of the U.S. Capitol attack to crowd management and VIP protection but also reassessing the lessons learned from complex, coordinated terrorist attacks that happened in Paris and Mumbai. January 6 could have been much worse if the attack had been more organized or launched at multiple simultaneous targets.

NEXT: Tactics to clear, secure a building under siege that every cop needs to know

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