‘We needed more support’: Capitol Police officer speaks out on leadership letdowns, lack of planning before insurrection

Caroline Edwards suffered a head injury when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Fueled by adrenaline, the United States Capitol Police officer said she continued to battle armed insurrectionists, white supremacists and other rioters for hours.

At one point, Edwards said, she pulled out a container of chemical spray to repel the 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 officer for about four years, is one of the first 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 rank-and-file officers.

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

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

Images from video footage captured at the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol allegedly show retired firefighter Robert Sanford in the crowd and throwing a fire extinguisher at a police officer.

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 difficult to get over.

“Being characterized as overwhelmed and ill-prepared does tremendous damage to the psyche of police officers,” 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 ill-prepared,” he said, “but you as an officer are incompetent or ill-prepared.”

A month later, some officers are struggling

Five people died in the attack, including Officer Brian Sicknick and a woman who was fatally shot by police while trying to breach the House side near the Speaker’s Chamber.

Two more officers there that day — one with the Capitol Police, another with the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department — died by suicide in the weeks following, acting D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee told Congress last month. It’s unclear if the deaths were tied to the events at the Capitol.

In all, 125 Capitol Police officers were physically assaulted, and more than 70 were injured, Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman said Friday. That doesn’t include officers 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 officers 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 probed the 9/11 attacks.

“In preparation for Jan. 6, (officers) 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 officers are now getting time to rest.

“The Capitol Police officers 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.”

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

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

The department has barred officers from discussing the event, which Edwards said has made some feel they can’t defend themselves. USA TODAY contacted dozens of officers; 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.”

Officers 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.”

Pro-Trump rioters stand on the West front of the U.S. Capitol building during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.

‘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-file officers. Nor were those officers 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, cyber 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 officers the day before the riot. Those efforts were still underway when the riot erupted.

Rioters attack the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington.

According to videos, photos and court documents reviewed by USA TODAY, the bulk of officers on duty that day wore shirtsleeves and jackets, with little visible protection. Many rioters were outfitted in bulletproof vests, military-style helmets and gas masks.

Facebook posts attributed to Capitol Police officers have vented frustration and responded to critics who questioned whether officers allowed rioters into the Capitol. Some posts have shared videos showing officers fighting to hold off fierce mobs. A few lashed out at the lack of leadership, protective gear and backup.

Baseball bats, flagpoles used against officers

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

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 officers: a lacrosse stick, baseball bats, even parts of the scaffolding for the upcoming inauguration. An officer was stabbed with a mental fence stake, Gus Papathanasiou, the union chairman for the Capitol Police Department, said in a statement.

‘We lost control’:How police failures let a violent insurrection into the Capitol

As officers 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 officers fought to keep rioters out of the building, according to court documents.

According to an affidavit 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 officer with a baseball bat.

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

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

Metropolitan Police officers who came to defend the Capitol were injured in some of the most violent incidents of the day. Sixty-five of them documented injuries, Contee told Congress.

One, referred to as Officer 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 identified as Jeffrey Sabol, held a baton across his neck. Peter Stager used a flagpole, an American flag still attached, to beat the officer, 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 efforts of the Metropolitan Police Department,” she said.

‘Why did I live?’

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

During an average career, a cop experiences 188 critical incidents that overwhelms his ability to cope, said David Black, a clinical psychologist who has done hundreds of violence risk assessments. Most Americans suffer five to 10.

The most severe of those events involve death and injury to officers, 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 officers seemed “emotionally, physically drained beyond belief.”

Four House lawmakers sent a letter to the House’s chief administrative officer on Jan. 28 asking for resources for Capitol staff as they grapple with the aftermath of the attack. The officer responded that the Office of Employee Assistance had deployed 24-hour services and had offered resources to companies with staff onsite during the attack.

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 mass-casualty events.

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

‘It’s going to prey on their minds’:Lawmakers call for mental health help for police and staff in wake of Capitol riot

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

Nationally, 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions stemming from traumatic events. While police slayings get public attention, officers 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 officers’ 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 five years from now.”

Contributing: Nicholas Wu and Courtney Subramanian

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