Politics

Shooting of Capitol Police Officers Was Turning Point for Department

20 years later, department has seen budget nearly quadruple as concerns rose

Members of the United States Capitol Police honor guard stand with a wreath during the annual United States Capitol Police memorial service on May 8 honoring the four USCP officers who have died in the line of duty. This year is the 20th anniversary of the deaths of Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson while protecting the U.S. Capitol from a gunman'’s attack on July 24, 1998. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It has been 20 years since a man with a gun walked into the U.S. Capitol and went on a shooting rampage that killed two Capitol Police personnel and set off two decades of hardening security around Capitol Hill.

Security protocols have ramped up everywhere from airports to museums, and much of the change is attributed to the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But on Capitol Hill, the deaths of Detective John M. Gibson and Officer Jacob J. Chestnut on July 24, 1998, prompted big changes even before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

“Protective barriers, Capitol Visitor Center, didn’t exist. So it was a really easy place to get to and nobody really thought about the possibility of a shooting,” said Jim VandeHei, who was a reporter for Roll Call at the time and went on to Politico and to found Axios. 

Watch: 20 Years Ago, a Deadly Shooting in the Capitol Changed Life on the Hill Forever

In July 1998, there was not much standing between the shooter, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., and the suite of offices held by Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

“Back in those days you could come and go as a tourist anywhere in the Capitol or frankly, in the office buildings,” DeLay said in a July interview.

The shooter was able to bypass a metal detector and enter the Capitol building and DeLay’s suite through the staff-only Document Doors, before shooting Chestnut. Gibson, a plainclothes Capitol Police officer assigned to DeLay’s leadership detail, intercepted the intruder and was hit as a gunfight ensued.

“In retrospect, it was extremely lax. ... You just had tremendous access both into the Capitol and around the Capitol. After that, they obviously really started to tighten security around the perimeter, limit the number of access points,” VandeHei said.

The deaths of Gibson and Chestnut shook the Capitol Hill community, and changes to tighten security began soon after.

“That sort of changed the world for the Capitol Police in a moment,” said Chief Matthew Verderosa. At the time he was an officer assigned to the Senate, and was closing up the chamber after adjournment when the shooting began.

Almost immediately, the Capitol Police started getting a series of budgetary increases from which they have never really turned back. Spending on Capitol Police will top $425 million this year, which is more than four times what was spent back in 1998.

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“It did change our posture in terms of screening equipment, the staffing levels, that type of thing as well,” said Verderosa.

The change was visible, with Capitol Police stationing two uniformed police at every entrance point, not just one. The size of the force has almost doubled since the 1990s, to more than 2,200 officers and civilian employees. Their mission is to protect Capitol Hill, its workforce of about 30,000 and the millions of visitors who come to Capitol Hill each year. The jurisdiction is small, but the force is bigger than the police departments in Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans or Denver.

Capitol Visitor Center

Congress agreed to make an enormous investment in a security fortress right on the Capitol campus, the Capitol Visitor Center. In October 1998, just three months after the shooting, lawmakers appropriated the first funds for its planning and development.

Verderosa said the shooting was what generated support for the CVC, an idea that had been bouncing around Capitol Hill for years without moving forward.

“The Capitol Visitor Center in essence pushed the threat out, away from the historic nature of the buildings, away from the access points inside the skin of the buildings,” he said.

The project officially broke ground in 2000, but then came 9/11 and the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill. More security measures were added to the CVC plans, causing delays and a budget increase of $150 million. What started as a $265 million project slated to open in 2005 ended up costing $621 million. Doors opened in December 2008, years behind schedule.

In 2016, when a man drew out a weapon and pointed it at an officer at the CVC, Capitol Police shot him. The gunman never entered the Capitol itself. At the time of the incident, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said the security features of the CVC worked as they were designed.

Today, there are barricades that block cars from approaching the Capitol and office buildings and snipers positioned on the terraces. Every bag is scanned before entry. But Capitol Police and lawmakers say they are committed to keeping the legislative branch accessible, in addition to safe. An estimated 3 million to 5 million people visit the Capitol each year, and most enter through the CVC.

The legacy of Gibson and Chestnut is alive in the current police force and security posture, Verderosa said.

“It’s their legacy that you see every day when you see the officers screening people and interacting with people, and honoring everyone’s First Amendment right to come up and protest and talk about the issues,” he said.

David Hawkings contributed to this report.

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