Q&A: The challenges of policing the U.S. Capitol

Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief and U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer discusses the unique issues facing Capitol police officers


This article is reprinted with permission from PERF's Daily Critical Issues Report 

By Police Executive Research Forum

Terry Gainer has served in several roles responsible for protecting Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Capitol, including as executive assistant chief of the Metropolitan Police Department from 1998-2002, police chief of the U.S. Capitol Police from 2002-2006, and U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms from 2007-2014.

A member of the U.S. Capitol Police stands behind security fencing outside the Capitol Building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in response to the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
A member of the U.S. Capitol Police stands behind security fencing outside the Capitol Building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in response to the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Last week, following the attack on the Capitol but before the deaths of two officers were announced, he spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about the challenge of securing the Capitol.

Chuck Wexler: Tell me how you first came to Washington.

Terry Gainer: I had retired as director of the Illinois State Police, where I had been for almost 10 years. And I had spent nearly 20 with the Chicago Police Department, except for some time out for military service.  I had really enjoyed the Illinois State Police, and it introduced me to a lot of different things,  but I wanted to get back to city policing.

Chuck Ramsey and I were both candidates to be Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, but neither of us got the position. I was in Washington for a business meeting, and I ran into Chuck Ramsey coming out of the Mayflower Hotel. I knew Washington was looking for a police chief, and I figured out why he was there. I told him that if he got the job, I wanted to be his number two. Unsurprisingly, they hired him, and he called me and said, “Let’s do it.”

Wexler: What was your role with the Metropolitan Police Department?

Gainer: I was the executive assistant chief, which was essentially the operational chief. Chief Ramsey and I were very good partners and went about trying to do what was desperately needed. The D.C. police always had a great reputation, but it had fallen on hard times, given what was going on in the political world in the District of Columbia.

Wexler: What were the agency’s challenges when you arrived?

Gainer: It was a troubled city with a very high crime rate. The mayor had been indicted and had been in jail. The city was largely being run by a federally appointed Financial Control Board, and they’re the ones who hired Chuck Ramsey. So we walked into a rather demoralized police department because of the political atmosphere.

What Chuck Ramsey did was allow the people to excel. We had some experience to offer, but it was really about empowering the right people in the police department to do what they needed to do.

I remember one of our first conversations was to sit down and talk about what our major challenges would be. It’s probably what a lot of chiefs do. We wanted to know how internal affairs was being run. We wanted to look at evidence and recovered property. We wanted to know how our detectives were doing. And we wanted to ask about the guidance being given to police officers. Those were some of the initial things we concentrated on.

Wexler: After four years, you moved to lead the Capitol Police. What interested you about that job?

Gainer:  9/11 happened. The Capitol Police were looking for someone new. They were looking to expand and build the department, and I was attracted to being a chief again.  

Terry Gainer served as chief of the U.S. Capitol Police from 2002-2006 and U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms from 2007-2014.
Terry Gainer served as chief of the U.S. Capitol Police from 2002-2006 and U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms from 2007-2014.

Wexler: What did you find when you got there, and what was your vision for the Capitol Police?

Gainer: I wanted to make sure it was professionally capable of responding to terrorism, which we were all concentrating on then. The first thing I did was sit down with the person who had been the acting chief, who had been there for about 30 years, and met individually with the one- and two-stars in the department to talk about their perspective on the needs, responsibilities and gaps in that department. I spent a lot of time meeting the officers. The Capitol jurisdiction is a relatively small area compared to a city, so if you hit each shift, you can talk to 1,500 people pretty easily. I concentrated on trying to understand the officers and get their perspective.

The Capitol Police Board hires you, but I quickly learned there were four very powerful Senate and House committees that oversaw the police department as well. They’re the ones that fund you and make decisions about how tight security can be or not be. That was an interesting introduction to being a chief with multi-agency oversight.

Wexler: How is policing the Capitol different from policing a city?

Gainer: The biggest contingent of Capitol police officers are doing building policing, garrison policing, covering the entrance and exit doors, making sure the legislative process is working, the members of Congress are secure and the offices of members around the United States are secure (and there are over 800 of them).

At the Capitol, we were asking our officers to be prepared to fight the terrorists that everyone thought were coming to the Capitol. At the same time, we were asking them to welcome visitors, welcome protestors and keep this place open. That was the major difference in policing. Like city policing, it required good community relations. But the place has to remain open and free because the public has to interact with their representatives.

Having been with the Metropolitan Police Department, I was aware of how the agency had been affected by the two Capitol police officers who were killed in 1998. I was aware that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania on 9/11 had been designated to come to the Capitol.

I’ll tell you a brief story about how I was impressed and learned about the love that those officers have for that institution and the members. On 9/11, after the planes hit the World Trade Center and one went into the Pentagon, everyone was looking for the fourth plane. As everyone will remember, the passengers fought the terrorists, which resulted in the plane crashing in Pennsylvania. But for a time, people thought it was going to hit the Capitol because that would be the next logical target. People were evacuated, and the 5-6 officers in the shooting range in one of the buildings went to a balcony on the east front of the Capitol with their automatic rifles and stood there prepared to try to shoot down the jet they thought was going to be coming in. There’s no automatic rifle that’s likely to stop a commercial airliner, but at least they were going to try to use the tools they had.

Those officers had been disciplined and reprimanded for taking the guns out of the vault in the range without proper authorization. When I arrived and was told that story, I called the officers back in, took those negative files out of there, and gave them awards. It was the right thing to do, but I think it also helped the officers understand where I was coming from.

Wexler: What was the state of the agency when you arrived?

Gainer: It was a good department, but I don’t think they felt respected. There was a large patrol unit. There was a big hazardous material unit. But we wanted to increase their training, get them more equipment, and encourage them to do regular patrolling that you would on the streets around the Capitol.

It met with some resistance from the officers and members of Congress. They wanted to know why officers were out there stopping cars and giving out tickets. They were doing that because it was illegal activity, and that was the best way to understand who was moving around your neighborhood. But the problem was that they ended up giving tickets to Congressional staff and even a few members, and being asked, “Don’t you know who I am?” But I told the officers that they are police officers and should act like police officers, and they did.

Wexler: What were your security concerns?

Gainer: Everybody throughout the Washington, D.C. area and elsewhere was worried about the air threat. We concentrated on making sure we had good connections with the proper military authorities who could let us know what was in the air.

Since there was no fencing around the Capitol, we also knew that people could come up and get to the skin of Capitol, as they, unfortunately, did this past week. We had to figure out the best way to protect the Capitol when they wouldn’t let us enclose the Capitol. That required more personnel, because there are many building entrances, and all the House and Senate Office Buildings are connected to each other and to the Capitol by tunnels. So there are a lot of posts needed, and the members were not particularly interested in closing and locking any doors. Every member and staff member wanted easy access from their building to walk grandly into the Capitol. The constant challenge was to convince them that it had to be regulated. You can’t just have a member of Congress bring 30 constituents in and try to walk right past the checkpoints. We had to get new magnetometers, get them at each door, train the officers on them, require that people start wearing I.D. cards, and all the other things that are routine now but were not being done then.

Wexler: You advocated for fencing around the entire perimeter?

Gainer: That’s correct. To get into the building, you opened a door on the first floor that was not substantially far away from the leaders of the House and Senate, and you were only a few feet away from the entrances to the chambers. The second in line for the presidency, the Vice President, is the President of the Senate and was often present in the Capitol. The third in line for the presidency, the Speaker of the House, is there constantly. And the President Pro Tem of the Senate is the fourth in line for the presidency.

You could walk up to that door, step inside, and, even though there’s a magnetometer, you’re already inside the building. So you could bring in whatever you were going to bring, and the police would be detecting it inside the building.

So we needed concentric circles of security. We needed to start sweeping people as far out as we could. That began the discussion of digging the deep tunnel on the east side that would become the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008.

While that was going on, I suggested constructing a fence. I probably didn’t use an artful enough term, because right away it conjured up keeping people out. It was pretty roundly shut down. That left a vulnerability.

Later, when I was the Senate Sergeant at Arms, it was still a problem. I was in a much better position to advocate for it. I worked with some of the finest authorities in government on designing what we called a Capitol gateway. It was tasteful iron fencing with brick stanchions between it. I said we could put entrances in about eight different areas on those big Capitol grounds where you could get in 24/7. That would meet the need for access for the public and the members. They’d still be able to roam once they were inside the grounds. It wouldn’t make the Capitol look like a fortress, but people would have to go through these checkpoints to go in.

We had drawings, a time frame and a price. I made my presentation to two Senate committees and two House committees. What happened is exactly what the staff told me was going to happen: “They’re never going to go for this. It’s too expensive.” They didn’t go for it. We never had it. And the consequence was visible last week when anarchists, egged on by the President and former Mayor Giuliani, came up there, overran our officers and got into the building. There are a lot of issues there and a lot of investigations to be done, but that’s the consequence of trying to have an open building without adequate security.

Wexler: What goes into planning major events, such as the presidential Inauguration, State of the Union address, and state funerals?

Gainer: Let’s start with the Inauguration because we’re a little over a week away from one. The planning starts about a year ahead of time because it involves a lot of moving parts. It’s overseen by a joint committee. The House runs the State of the Union, and the Senate has the lead on the Inauguration.

There are about 35 different committees that involve every law enforcement agency in the greater Washington, D.C. area, federal agencies, first responders, fire departments, and hospitals that get together to plan. The Capitol has one role for the actual swearing in, and the partners have additional roles for the parade route to the White House and for the Mall. We’re all working these things together because the checkpoints go from the Capitol down past the Washington Monument.

There’s a lot of coordination, as well as working with the staffs of the incoming and outgoing presidents. There are also Inaugural committees and inaugural balls. All that requires a lot of planning.

Up in the Capitol, the Supreme Court justices are all there, along with every member of Congress, and dignitaries from around the globe. It’s the responsibility of the Capitol Police to work with the Secret Service and the State Department’s diplomatic security to get people in and out and where they need to be. And every part of this planning is down to the second: when and where they’re going to arrive, who’s going to greet them, and where they’re going to go.

Then there’s the planning of the Inauguration itself, including the swearing-in, getting the President off the podium, and getting the outgoing President on the helicopter and out of there. It is a huge, huge event.

Wexler: When there’s a crisis like the one last week, what is the officers’ mission?

Gainer: We have a lot of buildings to protect, but that’s ancillary. Like any police department, the priorities are the protection of life, then the protection of process, then the protection of the buildings.

In major events, there will be some dignitary protection by the Secret Service. They’ll protect the President, the Vice President, and some members of the Cabinet. Those officers are not permitted on Capitol grounds or in the Capitol building without the permission of the Capitol Police and a Capitol Police agent along with them. The reason is that with different law enforcement agencies, you have to know who has the guns and what the rules of engagement are.

So for example, during the State of the Union address, if something goes wrong, the first thing the Secret Service will do is grab the President and Vice President and get them out of there. The rest of us are thinking about all the members of Congress and all the other dignitaries.

The primary mission of Capitol Police officers and agents, who do dignitary protection, is to have a plan for evacuating members of Congress, dignitaries, and people in the galleries. The Capitol Police are responsible for that, coordinating with their partners in the Secret Service and dignitary protection.

So looking at the ransacking of the Capitol, they failed at protecting the building and they failed at keeping people out of the building, but they did get the Constitutional officers out of those chambers before anything happened to them. The chambers were never breached by anybody because of the technology, the doors we have in there, and the number of plainclothes officers we have in there. People only ended up in those chambers after we abandoned those chambers to get the members and the staff out. The decision was to get the members and staff out first, then clear the building and retake the chambers. The first priority was securing the members and staffers.

And we saw that the second mission is protecting the process of governing. After securing the members, and, with help from the Metropolitan Police Department and several federal agencies, clearing the building of offenders, clearing the building of any incendiary devices, and clearing the building of any listening devices, they brought the members of Congress back in to fulfill their Constitutional duties and have the President-elect named the President-elect. And to their credit, that occurred later that same night, when the House and Senate went back to the business of confirming the electoral votes.

So they protected the people and protected the process.  Redoing the windows and doors can happen later.

Wexler: What impact do you think this incident will have on police across the country?

Gainer: There are a few areas that I think will be looked at. One is how state capitol buildings will be protected in every state. We know that some have been overtaken by protesters, which can be managed if they’re just protesters. And I think each police department is going to have to rethink the types of groups that were up on the Hill, whether it was the Proud Boys, or white supremacists, or other potentially violent groups. Police departments are going to have to think through what to do if anarchists want to take capitol buildings over, or city halls, or courthouses.

The other thing is the understanding that police departments will have to come to with their public about how they handle mass demonstrations, whether they do mass arrests, and whether they’re satisfied with finding offenders after the fact instead of trying to arrest everybody who’s trespassing.

Another issue that may resurface is how you approach a group like Black Lives Matter, and if police are more heavy-handed with them than they tend to be with white nationalists or similar groups. There has been a lot of talk about that. In addition to all the other things police chiefs are trying to work on with their community, there has to be a better understanding in the police department and the community about how they police these large events where different groups are mixing. As I’ve heard Chuck Ramsey say, you have to use the proper police force, no matter the offender’s political affiliation or the color of their skin. We have to be sensitive that we’re not perceived as doing something different for different people.

NEXT: Public employee speech and consequence of unlawful action

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