Tired and traumatized, Capitol Police officers face first joint session since Jan. 6

Specter of Jan. 6, other tragedies loom over joint address preparations

U.S. Capitol Officers  embrace outside of the Capitol Rotunda as the remains of Off. William “Billy” Evans lie in honor in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Evans was killed when a driver rammed the north barricade of the Capitol on April 2, 2021.  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Capitol Officers embrace outside of the Capitol Rotunda as the remains of Off. William “Billy” Evans lie in honor in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Evans was killed when a driver rammed the north barricade of the Capitol on April 2, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 28, 2021 at 6:00am

When one Capitol Police officer sees a photo of a fallen colleague, Officer Howard Liebengood, the loss still doesn’t seem real all these months later.

“I see Liebengood’s picture on the wall and all these cards from all the kids in the area and senators. But to me, he’s on vacation. He’s on his time off. He’s coming back,” says the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the strains on the force.

Capitol Police officers have been working to exhaustion, and many have not yet had time to fully process the Jan. 6 armed insurrection and the loss of three colleagues since that tragic day. Officer Brian Sicknick died from strokes the day after the insurrection, and Liebengood died by suicide days later. On April 2, Officer William “Billy” Evans was killed after a car slammed into him at a barricade near the Capitol.

“Same thing with Brian. Same thing with Billy, who was just killed at North barricade,” the officer said. “You haven’t had time to process all this stuff yet. And that’s because you were working so many days straight, with the crazy hours.”

The last joint session of Congress was marked by the violent insurrection and followed by months of relentless hours for the traumatized force. Now, as many officers prepare to work a 16-hour day to secure the Capitol for President Joe Biden’s Wednesday speech before a joint session, the toll on their personal lives continues to mount. Although the number of members of Congress and guests will be extremely limited, the events of the past few months hang over the preparations, and the lack of anything resembling a break for officers has left a mark.

“We have zero vacation because they’re not granting more leave for officers,” a second officer said. “Our family lives are jacked up right now because they [USCP leadership] can’t figure out manpower. They don’t have a plan.”

Through Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, many officers worked at least 12-hour days, some for six or seven days each week. But it didn’t end there. Officers have continued to work 12-hour shifts for months. Some divisions have gone back to five eight-hour shifts each week, but those officers are still drafted to work overtime, and their ability to take vacation is extremely limited.

Adding to the strain is the global pandemic. In total, 219 Capitol Police employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the most recent review of such figures. About 100 of those cases developed in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection. More than 67 percent of the department has received vaccines, according to acting Chief Yogananda Pittman.

Pittman told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee last week that the department has provided more than 19,600 nights in hotel rooms to cut down on officers’ commute times.

“At least with the hotels, you were able to respond over to the hotel, kick your feet off. With going home, your eight-hour turnaround turns into two to three hours of sleep,” the first officer said. “With staying at the hotel, you probably got five hours of sleep, which you can work off of.”

But the hotel stays came at the cost of not seeing their families.

“Thanks for the hotel, but it’s a product of schedule,” a third officer said. “And, oh, if you have a family, guys are like, ‘I appreciate the hotel, but what about my family at home that I have to go see?’”

“I see my kids for an hour a day,” the second officer said of working long shifts.

The first officer, who has about an hourlong commute to the Hill, recounted a 12-hour shift.

“You wake up at 4:30 in the morning. You have your breakfast. You leave the house at 5 a.m. Your report time is 6:30 a.m., and then you work until 6:30 p.m,” the officer said. “You drive home. By 8:30 p.m., you’re home. Pack your food for the next day. You go to bed. And then you wake up at 4:30 in the morning and do it all over again.”

Such a schedule results in minimal time for a personal life, that officer said.

“But they don’t care if you have a family. You don’t have a personal life if you work here,” the officer said. “They’ll ask you, ‘How’s your family?’ Great, I haven’t seen my kid in three months.”

Mass exodus

A security review by retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré and his task force found the Capitol Police to be significantly understaffed, with 233 vacancies. Honoré noted the department was employing an “unsustainable” overtime model, and he recommended that a total of 854 positions be added to the force.

Those shortcomings need to be addressed soon because officers are worried about a mass exodus from the force. 

The third officer said a lot of their colleagues are “done” with the Capitol Police.

“The culture of Capitol Police, it seems broken to me. It seems like we are a number and we’re at the disposal of Congress,” that officer said. “There’s a hole on a schedule and they need a body to fill it and it doesn’t matter my experience, my qualifications, anything.”

The first officer said the strain is resulting in many close colleagues leaving. “A lot of these young kids, I know eight to 10 on top of my head that are in the process of leaving,” the officer said.

Currently, there are 1,843 sworn officers working for Capitol Police, 36 fewer than there were in September 2020. The number of officers leaving is expected to rise in the coming months and years, the  officers  said,  unless  there  is  a  significant  change  in  the  structure  of the department.

“We’re gonna start losing officers on the front end and back end,” the second officer said of retirements and younger officers leaving early. “So when they did the Honoré report, he said we’re already short 233 officers, right? Since Jan. 6, we’ve lost 30 officers. You know how many classes we had go through the academy since Jan. 6? Zero. You know how long it takes to train somebody coming out of the academy? Eight months.”

There are hundreds of older officers who could retire over the next three years.

The first officer agreed that the Capitol Police will have trouble executing Honoré’s hiring recommendation, which includes a suggestion to hire officers laterally.

“That process is gonna take five years to get those numbers,” the officer said. “By the time you have the turnaround of people leaving and people retiring, you’re breaking even. You’re not gaining 1,000 more. You’re gaining 1,000 to fill all the holes of where everybody just left.”

Whether the department will undergo the tectonic shift its officers are craving is yet to be seen. In the meantime, they are holding out hope.

“I’m trying to be hopeful that there’s a possibility of the department changing how it operates. So that’s where I’m at right now. But for a lot of people who aren’t from here who’ve come here expecting one thing and are getting another thing, they have no incentive to stay,” the third officer said. “Even the pay, which is good for a starting police department, it’s not worth it if you can’t have a life or a family.”

Trauma support

The department brought in peer support groups composed of law enforcement officers from other departments to speak with Capitol Police officers.

“Those groups were great. They were hunting people to talk to,” the first officer said. “Because there’s a lot of tough guys. ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody. That makes me sound crazy.’”

The ability to talk with other officers who have experienced similar trauma is important because there is a stigma associated with speaking to counselors, the officers said.

“They’re bringing in a lot of outside agencies now because no one wants to talk to the internal psychologists/psychiatrists because everyone associates that with ‘If I tell them how I’m feeling, they’re going to take my police powers away,’” the second officer said. “And that’s unfortunate.”

Pittman has said the department is offering access to professional counselors through a partnership with the House Office of Employee Assistance, the peer counseling sessions and counseling services for officers’ family members.

Pittman’s fiscal 2022 budget request, an ask of more than $100 million over the previous year, includes wellness initiatives for officers and aims to increase “access to the Employee Assistance Program and other health and wellness programs.”

Joint session security

The Secret Service is working with the Capitol Police, Metropolitan Police Department, U.S. Park Police and other law enforcement entities to secure the event. It is designated a National Special Security Event by the Homeland Security Department, the Capitol Police said in a statement.

A Capitol Police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the security preparations.

Biden plans to deliver remarks at 9 p.m. to a scaled-down crowd of lawmakers in the House chamber because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Looming over the preparations is the specter of the Jan. 6 attack.

On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters she had received a “strong briefing” on security, adding, “I said I wish I had had this briefing, you know, before Jan. 6th, but we insisted on knowing every detail of it.”

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said on April 22 that he is confident it will be a safe night.

“I feel very assured that it’s a safe event,” the California Republican said. “I’ve been very sure of our security and safety here.”

Representatives for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to an email request for comment.