A Primer on the Capitol Police: What We Know From Two Years of Research

The insurrectionist siege of the Capitol brings renewed focus on the force.

After Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, members, staff, and journalists were forced to hide throughout the terrifying ordeal and many took to Twitter asking the fundamental questions: Where are the Capitol Police and how could this happen?

The U.S. Capitol Police is the security-force/police-department hybrid tasked with keeping Congress safe and open for business. The little-known department has a budget that exceeds $515 million for FY 2021— constituting almost 10% of Legislative branch funding — and nearly 2,450 employees, around 2,000 of whom are sworn officers. The size of the Capitol Police’s budget can compete with major municipal police forces such as San Antonio’s, which is responsible for a population of 1.5 million, and USCP’s workforce size eclipses that of major city departments like New Orleans and Miami. Notably, their extended jurisdiction covers less than 2 square miles, and there are many other police and security forces in Washington, D.C.

How is the department using those resources to enforce the law and protect the Congress? It is difficult to say because the Capitol Police are infamously opaque. Only in response to significant outside agitation did we obtain any details about their operations. For example, the department started posting weekly arrest summaries in December 2018, following prodding from civil society and congressional overseers. These summaries are among the limited information the department shares publicly — although we have reason to suspect they are not complete, among other shortcomings.

The Capitol Police does have an Inspector General. However, unlike the vast majority of IGs, the USCP IG does not make their reports publicly available. In addition, the Capitol Police does publish basic information about complaints against them, but most notable for its lack of detail. Additionally, it is possible to request information from the Capitol Police concerning arrests, but our experience is that they often do not comply with the requests for information. Finally, while there is a public affairs office, our repeated experience is that they are in the business of not responding to inquiries and take a generally dim attitude towards public requests for information.

To their immense credit, the Committee on House Administration dove deeply into the Capitol Police’s operations during a 2019 hearing, including allegations of discrimination. The committee has demonstrated a commitment to improving the transparency and efficacy of the department. In addition, Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced the Capitol Police Advancement Act in July which contained several notable improvements to their operations.

We took a deep dive into Capitol Police activities, based on publicly-reported information, to try to understand how they spend their time. If the past two years of arrest data reflect department priorities, we can see where they place a significant part of their emphasis:

  1. Half of the incidents reported are traffic stops: Of the 745 incidents that occurred between December 19, 2018, and December 19, 2020, 51.7% (385) included charges for traffic-related infractions. Furthermore, 14.2% (106) of incidents were drug-related, with drug-related defined as reports including the terms “marijuana,” “powder,” “substance,” “pipe,” “joint,” “paraphernalia,” or “leafy.”
  2. The majority of policing activity happens when Congress is done for the day: more than 60% (476) of reported incidents occurred outside business hours, defined as 7:30 am to 6:30 pm Monday through Friday, holidays included.
  3. Only a third of arrests happen on the immediate Capitol Campus, with just 32.2% (240) of all incidents reported occurring in House and Senate office buildings, the U.S. Capitol, and/or on the streets directly adjacent to these locations. Meanwhile, more than 13% of incidents (98) took place within the one block radius surrounding Union Station.

 

With an abundance of resources, how is it possible the department wasn’t prepared for the recent chaos? The answer could be, in part, insufficient accountability mechanisms. The department has had money thrown at it for years — its budget is up 322.9% from 1995 (adjusting for inflation), whereas the Legislative Branch Budget has only grown 30.5% in that same time — but those dollars haven’t come with the necessary oversight strings attached. It is apparent that money is not the problem.

We suspect that the Capitol Police has failed to properly invest in its personnel and practices. Furthermore, while they have a significant intelligence-related function, clearly it was insufficient to the moment, even as it was obvious to outside observers that this could happen.

We are distraught by this month’s events. We are concerned for the safety of Members of Congress, their staff, capitol employees, the press, visitors, and the Capitol Police themselves. This never should have happened — but as our research suggests that inadequate oversight and accountability over the decades left the Capitol Police gravely incapable of meeting the moment.

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Amelia Strauss and Daniel Schuman

Amelia Strauss is a Policy Associate at Demand Progress where Daniel Schuman is the Policy Director