US Capitol Police to open field offices in Tampa, San Francisco

The field offices are meant to bolster the agency’s ability to assess threats and provide security for Congress members and their offices, police said

By Jack Evans
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — One of the first two field offices for the U.S. Capitol Police will open here in the coming weeks, the beginnings of a plan to substantially expand the agency’s geographic footprint beyond Washington, D.C.

Meant to bolster the agency’s ability to assess threats and provide security for members of Congress and their offices, according to the Capitol Police and members themselves, the expansion has drawn mixed reactions from politicians. It comes with the agency — which has long lacked transparency and has been the subject of scandal in recent years — still reeling from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

U.S. Capitol Police Mountain Bike officers secure the plaza near the steps of the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2021.
U.S. Capitol Police Mountain Bike officers secure the plaza near the steps of the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The announcement of the field offices came quietly in early July in the eighth paragraph of a press release titled “After the Attack: The Future of the U.S. Capitol Police.” The agency later said the offices would be in Tampa and San Francisco, which it picked because “a majority of our potential threats” come from Florida and California, but offered little other information. It did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, met July 22 with Capitol Police officials and the sergeant at arms of the U.S. House, she said. The announcement presented the expansion as one of many changes in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. But Castor said officials told her they’ve been planning the field offices for years, since the 2017 shooting at a Congressional baseball practice in Virginia.

The agency’s duties won’t change, Castor said, but it will be able to collaborate more closely with local law enforcement and state and federal agencies.

“The fact that they’re coming to Tampa to expand law enforcement presence there makes me feel safer,” she said. “It’s vitally important that citizens feel safe coming to a (Congressional) office when they have an issue on their veterans’ benefits, their Medicare. I don’t want them to be deterred.”

The field office will in the Tampa Bay Regional Intelligence Center at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on N Falkenburg Road, where agencies including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement also have a presence.

Its opening is “imminent over the next few weeks,” Castor said. It’s unclear how many sworn Capitol Police officers and civilian employees will work out of the office or who will lead local operations.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at the liberal advocacy organization Demand Progress, researches and covers the Capitol Police for the group’s Congress-focused newsletter, First Branch Forecast. He said it’s likely true that members of Congress feel a need for more security.

Capitol Police say threats have increased, he said, and nearly 600 people have been arrested in connection with the insurrection, which resulted in the deaths of two Capitol Police officers and exposed flaws in the highest levels of American security.

But there’s also reason to be skeptical, Schuman said. An office in Tampa would still place officers hours from Jacksonville or the Florida Keys or the Panhandle. Would it really be more efficient, he wondered, to respond to threats from the middle of the state than from Washington, D.C.?

Beyond logistics, he said, adding offices won’t fix the big problems plaguing the Capitol Police. The agency is notoriously opaque: It’s not beholden to federal open records laws, and it’s not required to publicly acknowledge arrests. Even so, it has frequently been the subject of scandals, from officers leaving their firearms in bathrooms to accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination against women. In 2019, the agency’s former chief acknowledged a “systemic failure” to supervise new officers.

Then the insurrection plunged the agency into crisis. Scores of officers were hurt, and dozens retired or resigned. Its then-chief resigned the day after the insurrection, followed by an interim chief who faced criticism from the officers’ union. Last week, a new chief was appointed from outside the agency.

The first Congressional report on the riot revealed that the agency failed to circulate or act based on intelligence it had collected weeks before Jan. 6 on the potential for violence, and that dysfunction within the agency left officers unprepared. The House panel investigating the attack held its first hearing Tuesday, with Capitol Police officers testifying on the violence and racism of the pro-Trump mob.

“When you have absolute secrecy around an agency with a track record of failure, I wouldn’t want them running around,” Schuman said.

Though the agency already collaborates with local law enforcement, increasing those ties via on-the-ground work could also raise questions about transparency, he added.

“You could see local law enforcement handing off arrests to Capitol Police or vice versa,” he said, “which basically makes it impossible to provide accountability.”

The Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for the FBI’s Tampa office said it “enjoys strong law enforcement partnerships,” but has no formal partnership with the Capitol Police.

Rep. Scott Franklin, a Republican whose district includes northeast Hillsborough County, said in a statement that he initially had questions about the expansion, but has since been told by Capitol Police officials that it “is not related to the current investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.”

“The USCP presence will be small, to help coordinate threat assessments and cooperation with local law enforcement,” he said.

Some other Republicans have criticized the agency’s new offices, positioning them as outposts in a culture war. A week after the announcement, the Hillsborough County Republican Party tweeted, then deleted, a letter calling the plan “a slap in the face to our local Sheriffs and Police officers” and asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to step in. The group didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Afterward, a spokesperson for DeSantis suggested local law enforcement already provided all the help Capitol Police needed in assessing threats from within the state.

“Congressional Democrats should focus more on the dangerous ‘defund the police’ movement taking hold of the left — and less on political schemes,” the spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, wrote in an email, referring to the movement that advocates for smaller police budgets and more spending on other agencies and civic projects.

The Capitol Police budget was about $515 million in the last fiscal year, which would rank in the top-10 of municipal police funding nationwide, were it a city department, Schuman noted. And it is likely to increase.

Castor said she wasn’t worried about issues of transparency or the agency’s turmoil.

“This move to open regional field offices is a step toward upping their game — to be more efficient and serve and protect more along the lines of the Secret Service,” she said.

Rep. Charlie Crist also signaled his support for the field offices.

“Florida is ground zero for extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, but these anti-American mobs don’t represent our Florida values and must be held accountable,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said in a statement.

Sixty-three Floridians have been arrested in connection with the insurrection as of Monday, the most of any state. A 20-year-old Tampa man pleaded guilty recently after taking part in the attack as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right antigovernment militia. Several other Florida members of the group have been indicted.

Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center said it was tracking 68 hate groups in Florida, more than any other state but California.

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this story.

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