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Who is in charge of Capitol building security anyway? A primer

The building’s security is manned by the U.S. Capitol Police, which is small.

Who is in charge of Capitol building security anyway? A primer
Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, as the Congress works to certify Electoral College votes. [Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images]
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How did a pro-Trump mob of rioters breach the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday afternoon, accessing the Senate floor and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s desk? And why did the riot continue for hours?

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These questions will be asked, scrutinized, and investigated for days and months to come as the dust settles from the unprecedented events that occurred in the nation’s capital on Wednesday. In the meantime, there are a few basic points to keep in mind about how things usually work and what we know so far about what happened.

The building’s security is manned by the U.S. Capitol Police, which is small: The force provides roughly 2,000 officers (with 2,300 employees total, including civilian employees) and is “responsible for protecting Congress and the public, and maintaining order while protecting the U.S. Capitol.” It is overseen by the four members of the Capitol Police Board, with Congressional oversight. The Capitol building covers more than 16 acres large and on Wednesday was surrounded by many thousands of armed rioters.

David Ramsey, a former police chief of Washington, D.C., told CNN that “they got overwhelmed awful quick. There’s no way they should’ve gotten into that building.”

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Over three hours after the Capitol building had been breached, a safe perimeter had not yet been reestablished, with rioters in a standoff with police on the building’s steps for hours. Reporters were openly asking when the area would be cleared. CNN on-the-ground reporter Pete Muntean reported late in the afternoon that no large security forces had arrived, despite promises of both National Guard officers and police from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

As some have pointed out, the security response was likely slowed by the fact that Washington, D.C., is not a state: Because D.C. does not have a governor, D.C. Guard deployments must be approved by the city’s National Guard army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, the Associated Press reported. This is a slower process than a governor hastily declaring a state of emergency and calling in National Guard forces in large numbers.

Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser reportedly put in a request on December 31 for a limited National Guard deployment on the streets from Tuesday to Thursday, to support the Metropolitan Police Department during protests. But only 340 D.C. National Guard members were activated, with plans for around 115 to be on duty at any time. They were not armed.

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Expect many, many questions in the coming days.