Mental health concerns overshadowed by Capitol Police Board questions

Architect of Capitol adds another layer to Jan. 6 narrative

Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton will have to navigate the agency through a sexual discrimination lawsuit. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton will have to navigate the agency through a sexual discrimination lawsuit. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 3:15pm

The opaque inner workings of the Capitol Police Board and what steps were taken on and before Jan. 6 overtook the intended focus of a Wednesday House hearing that was supposed to examine the mental health of congressional employees and the status of damage and preservation following the attack on the Capitol.

Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton told lawmakers Wednesday that he was excluded from discussions about requests for more security support and that Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund did not request an emergency declaration from the full Capitol Police Board. Sund resigned on Jan. 16.

Blanton is one of the three voting members of the four-person Capitol Police Board and faced a barrage of questions from lawmakers on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee about what he knew and when the group met in the lead-up to Jan. 6.

“In order to, to have gotten an emergency declaration, there would have to be a board vote. So there was not an official ask at that time,” said Blanton.

He said that the lack of request or vote for an emergency declaration was not a tie-up due to procedure or even all needing to be in the same room.

“If I can be clear on one thing, we can do a verbal vote on the board,” said Blanton. “We can have a verbal vote, get it done and then follow it up with the right paperwork so there’s nothing slowing anything down.”

Sund spoke repeatedly with the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms but not to the Architect of the Capitol, the third vote on the board.

“It never came to the full board’s attention,” Blanton said of a request to declare an emergency and request assistance from the National Guard.

Blanton’s testimony adds another layer of discrepancy and confusion about the slow response from the National Guard on Jan. 6 and also builds on growing calls for the Capitol Police Board to be reviewed and reorganized.

At a Tuesday hearing, testimony from Sund, former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael C. Stenger and former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving highlighted differing accounts of when an emergency declaration was requested and who was notified.

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There were conflicting accounts from Sund and Irving on when Sund asked for National Guard assistance on the day of the attack. Sund said that by 1:09 p.m. he had notified both Irving and Stenger of the department’s need for a state of emergency declaration and National Guard help. That request was not approved by the Capitol Police Board until after 2 p.m.

“It never got to the point that the police board actually voted on the emergency declaration,” said Blanton.

Questions from Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and ranking member Jamie Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., and other lawmakers emphasized just how walled off the Capitol Police Board is, even from the lawmakers who have oversight jurisdiction over the Capitol Police.

“Moving forward, we need to completely understand the operation of the board and how the board works and what that process is,” said Ryan.

Herrera Beutler noted that while different members of the board are scheduled to appear before the panel and other committees, she would like to see all members on a panel together to answer questions from lawmakers, and she requested that that possibility be explored.

Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., the assistant speaker of the House, asked Blanton what changes to the Capitol Police Board he would like to see.

“I believe that as a member of the police board, that there needs to be more accountability and transparency on some of the actions that we vote upon,” Blanton replied.

He said there is a problem of overclassification that prevents relevant information from being shared, even with members of Congress. In terms of accountability, Blanton said that with such extensive classification, it is a challenge to hold the board accountable for decisions or actions it has taken.

“A lot of decisions end up being classified. So it’s very few individuals who actually have visibility of what decisions are made by the police board,” he told the subcommittee.

Mental health on Capitol Hill

Just a handful of questions centered on the intended focus of the hearing: the mental health of workers on Capitol Hill after the traumatizing events of Jan. 6.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat focused on the custodial staff, which is made up largely of people of color, and their task of cleaning up after a mob that had displayed racist imagery and spewed slurs at Capitol Police officers and others in the building.

“I want to know what’s being done for these folks, and what the AOC and the administrators are doing to help the people that were traumatized during this attack,” the New York Democrat said.

Espaillat said that when he returned to the Capitol around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, he saw men of color mopping up the blood outside the House chamber where one insurrectionist was shot trying to climb into the Speaker’s Lobby. Others swept up broken glass and residue from tear gas. He questioned why these men of color were sent so immediately to clean up.

“I could just imagine what they felt when I saw them; I was terrified myself. I didn’t capture the fact immediately that they were mopping up blood,” said Espaillat.

Blanton stressed that the workers handling the blood were trained specifically for biohazard cleanup and that the custodial staff vacuuming up shattered glass volunteered to do so out of a commitment to what they understood to be a key moment for democracy.

“My staff had great pride in the work they did immediately following. They actually were proud of themselves and the organization that they were able to clean up,” Blanton said.

Workers carry trash bags through the Ohio Clock Corridor in Washington on Jan. 7, 2021, after the riot at the Capitol the previous day. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Espaillat pressed for more details on what support those workers are receiving, Blanton outlined a proactive approach beyond just offering the services of the Office of Employee Assistance and waiting for employees to reach out.

“I know some of the men and women of the Architect of the Capitol. We’re a tough group, and some of us want to internalize,” he said.

He said sessions are set up specifically for different teams to participate in and outreach is happening to encourage participation in the assistance programs.

Also, Blanton has requested additional funding specifically to create an awards program for the AOC staff who were on the ground on Jan. 6.

“I do feel like they went above and beyond the duty. And that’s why we’re looking out for them both mentally — I want to look out for their physical health and making sure they’re properly trained — but then also some economic benefit for what they did,” he said.

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.