Congress Concerned by Capitol Police Conduct With Protesters
Congress has been critical of the Capitol Police this year when it comes to the department’s handling of protesters. Now, one member is demanding to see the department’s policies on removing demonstrators from House and Senate hearings.
It started in January, when Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain called one of the protesters who disrupted a panel hearing “low-life scum,” and later vowed he would be “raising hell” over their behavior toward 91-year-old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
McCain had a “spirited conversation” with Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Frank J. Larkin about keeping order during hearings, and Capitol Police promptly booted CodePink activists from a subsequent Armed Services hearing. The group fumed about the beefed-up law enforcement presence after protesters were handcuffed before and after hearings.
Two weeks after the Kissinger incident, Capitol Police were visibly frustrated when hundreds of immigration protesters descended on the complex, holding sit-ins in Senate and House offices. Only five arrests were reported, but officers were heard warning other demonstrators they would be locked up if they did not stop chanting.
Rep. Steve King, one of the lawmakers targeted on Feb. 11, tried multiple times to take legislative action to step up immigration enforcement by Capitol Police. The Iowa Republican recently filed a spending bill amendment to designate funds to train Capitol Police to “investigate, identify, apprehend, arrest, detain and transfer persons for the purposes of enforcing the immigration laws” like other federal law enforcement personnel.
“I don’t know if they are being more aggressive,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the latest to scrutinize Capitol Police. “I do know that I have been in hearings where people got up, had a sign, sat down [and] weren’t even asked to leave as long as they didn’t repeat the infraction.”
Concerned Capitol Police might have tossed one of her constituents from a House hearing without just cause, Norton wants clarification on the department’s policy on protesters. In a Monday letter to Chief Kim C. Dine, Norton asks Capitol Police to specify the regulations or laws “that indicate whether officers must personally observe the conduct to remove a demonstrator or may rely solely on witness reports.”
Local activist Adam Eidinger is fighting “unlawful entry” charges stemming from his arrest during an April 21 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee markup, which he says he was carried out of despite not causing a disturbance. Eidinger heads back to court on May 27. He has said he intends to sue if he is successful in fighting the charges.
Norton told CQ Roll Call she has not talked to Eidinger directly. However, she is concerned after seeing inconsistent treatment of demonstrators during her 20 years on the Hill. “Virtually everything a police officer does comes back to training,” she said. “The sequester has robbed Capitol Police of all training, except for the most minimal training on handguns.”
The department’s $348 million budget is stretched thin. Capitol Police would receive an increase of $21 million from fiscal 2015 levels under the Legislative Branch spending bill advancing through the House this week. On Wednesday, Dine will testify before the House Administration Committee on security challenges the agency faces.
“The USCP respect and protect the right of people to peaceably assemble and exercise their rights under the First Amendment,” spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “We handle demonstrations in an outstanding manner, and manage demonstration activity almost on a daily basis. This is an extremely significant part of the USCP’s responsibilities on U.S. Capitol Grounds. We balance providing security with maintaining a safe and open campus that is accessible to the general public. ”
Schneider told CQ Roll Call the “scenario-based training” Dine referred to is online. She said officers regularly receive legal updates; department-issued bulletins; and online, in-service and roll-call training.
In 2014, 181 permits were filed for demonstrations on Capitol grounds. The department did not provide info on how many of those were granted, but only one event resulted in arrests — of 24 people at the time. By comparison, four events in 2013 resulted in 355 arrests, three events in 2012 resulted in 116 arrests and five events in 2011 resulted in 143 arrests.
“The USCP routinely communicates with the Congressional Community to facilitate the ability of Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities in a safe and open environment,” Schneider said.