Under Microscope for Gyrocopter, Capitol Police Stretched Thin
Members of Congress agreed Doug Hughes is lucky to be alive after his dangerous stunt, based on what they learned about the April 15 gyrocopter landing during closed-door briefings from Capitol law enforcement. But big questions remain unanswered.
Police had multiple weapons trained on the small aircraft, but decided not to shoot the 61-year-old mailman down from the sky. Spring break crowds roaming the Hill may have played a part in their judgment call, though lawmakers declined to go into specifics about where the guns were and who held their fire.
Did officers assessing the situation from the Upper West Terrace, and other cops equipped with sniper rifles, identify the gyrocopter as a threat as it traveled up the National Mall? What kind of defensive posture would Capitol Police take to protect against an imminent threat from above? And did they have the intelligence information to do so?
“The decision-making is so rapid,” West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito said in the hallway outside her Russell Senate Building office, after an April 23 briefing.”I think they were assessing — you know, there were tourists there, high school students and kids. … I think the decision that they made took all those factors into account. That’s what they told us.” Capito is chairwoman of the Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to delve into the alarming incident during an April 29 hearing on securing Washington’s airspace. Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, expects witnesses from agencies who protect D.C., including Park Police, Secret Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Lack of communication and coordination among authorities — who had a heads-up about Hughes from the Tampa Bay Times — is one of the biggest concerns for lawmakers. “A lot of times agencies operate in silos,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, after a private briefing from Capitol law enforcement and Secret Service.
“One of the things I was surprised to learn [was] that more than 365 incursions will happen during the year, and they’re almost always dealt with in a smooth, professional manner in which we never hear about. But obviously what happened last week is totally unacceptable. The number of these incursions is pretty startling, it’s almost one a day,” Chaffetz said.
Despite the Freedom of Information Act, the department doesn’t have to release any records about the April 15 incident or other airspace intrusions to the public. Thanks to legislation Congress enacted in 2004, Capitol Police are exempted from having to release to another entity any information “that relates to actions taken … in response to an emergency situation, or to any other counterterrorism and security preparedness measures” unless they determine that releasing the information will not “jeopardize the security and safety” of the Capitol complex.
As lawmakers take a deep dive into the gyrocopter incident, they are also in the process of budgeting for the personnel and technology that protect the Capitol. Hours before Capito’s April 23 briefing, her counterparts on the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee approved a $3.3 billion measure that includes $369 million for Capitol Police, an increase of $21 million from current funding levels.
Internal messages obtained by CQ Roll Call show the department’s budget and manpower are stretched thin halfway through the fiscal year. Multiple sources say Capitol Police face a $5 million shortfall, and the Uniformed Services Bureau — responsible for protection of the Capitol, House and Senate office buildings and the Library of Congress— is staffed at only 60 percent. The memos show all training, except handgun and long-gun training, has been suspended until Oct. 1.
During the Appropriations markup, some Democrats raised concern about communication and cooperation among Capitol Police, Metro Transit Police and the Metropolitan Police Department. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said she wanted to discuss an “inner-cooperative drill” between the departments.
“There were some major problems around Eastern Market, and I would call the Capitol Police and then I would call the Washington, D.C., police, or my staff would, and one didn’t know what the other was doing,” agreed Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., ranking member on the Appropriations Committee. Staff said she referred to incidents of violent crime in the neighborhood, which is concerning given its proximity to the Capitol. “It’s a real problem,” Lowey added.
Asked if Capitol Police had a response to concerns about communications, and whether the department performs drills with MPD, Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider provided CQ Roll Call with a statement. “We are grateful for the Committee’s support of the Department and its workforce,” Schneider said in an email.
Although Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine has been criticized over communications issues and department morale, members who sat down with the chief over the gyrocopter debacle did not criticize his job performance. Dine submitted a resignation letter to the Capitol Police Board earlier this month, but he remains in place.
“We met with him and his new assistant chief [Matthew R. Verderosa]. I think he’s dedicated to keeping this place as safe as he possibly can,” Capito said. “I think he’s working hard. He hasn’t been there that long and I think we ought to give him a chance to see that he can be successful.”
Chaffetz ducked an inquiry about whether he was questioning Dine’s leadership. “Let us get through the hearing and then we’ll learn more, but I think that we’ve shared pretty much everything we got out of this briefing,” he said.