WASHINGTON — Even before the first hearing of the House select committee to investigate the January 6th insurrection began on Tuesday morning, one question loomed large: Why was law enforcement so utterly unprepared for the violence and upheaval of that day?
The testimony given Tuesday by four police officers who defended the Capitol on January 6th — two from the Capitol Police, two from Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department — only heightened the need for answers as to how thousands of pro-Trump rioters breached the Capitol’s security perimeter and hundreds of those rioters forced their way inside.
The four witnesses appeared before a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, nine Democrats and two Republicans. One recurring theme that emerged from the witnesses’ prepared testimonies and their answers to questions was the unprecedented nature of the violence on January 6th.
Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell compared the attacks of January 6th to his deployment to Iraq as an Army service member. A native of the Dominican Republic who came to America in 1992, Gonell described navigating roads riddled with improvised explosive devices on supply missions. After the Army, Gonell went on to work for the U.S. Capitol Police. Now a sergeant, Gonell joined the hundreds of police officers who defended the Capitol against the violent insurrectionist who sought to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
“On January 6th, for the first time, I was more afraid to work at the Capitol, than in my entire deployment to Iraq,” Gonell testified in Congress on Tuesday. “In Iraq, we expected armed violence, because we were in a war zone. But nothing in my experience in the Army, or as a law-enforcement officer, prepared me for what we confronted on January 6.”
D.C. Police Officer Michael Fanone was working as a plain-clothed officer in the narcotics division when he heard distressing radio calls coming from police officers at the Capitol on January 6th. Fanone and his partner parked their car a few blocks from Capitol Hill, picked up riot gear, and joined the line of officers blocking the insurrectionists who assaulted the officers with tear gas, pipes, and other projectiles. Fanone testified that he was dragged into the crowd, beaten unconscious, and attacked with a Taser before he was dragged to safety. He suffered a heart attack, concussion, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fanone testified on Tuesday that he had never witnessed a scene in several decades as a cop like the one he confronted at the Capitol on the day of the insurrection. “I thought I had seen it all many times over,” he said. “Yet what I witnessed and experienced on January 6th, 2021, was unlike anything I had ever seen, had ever experienced, or could’ve imagined in my country.”
A third witness, Officer Harry Dunn of the Capitol Police, testified that he had never personally witnessed the level of violence that he encountered on January 6th.
But here’s the rub: All four officers who testified said they had received no warning that anything remotely like what took place on January 6th was possible.
Dunn told the select committee that a friend texted him a screenshot on the morning of the 6th of what looked like a plan of action for the day ahead. The “objective,” the plan said, was “THE CAPITAL” and that “Trump has given us marching orders.” The plan instructed people to “keep your guns hidden” and “bring…your trauma kits” and “gas mask.”
Dunn said he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. This was the first he had heard of anything more than a rally planned for January 6th. He was told by his chain of command to expect civil disobedience, as sometimes happens at the Capitol. “At the time, though, we had not received any threat warnings from our chain of command, and I had no independent reason to believe that violence was headed our way,” he testified.
D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges, who suffered injuries that day and referred to the insurrectionists as “terrorists” in his testimony, mentioned this disparity when the subject came up about why police didn’t use their guns to stop the rioters. There were “thousands of terrorists…only hundreds of us,” Hodges said. “If it had turned into a firefight, we would’ve lost.”
Hodges was not the only witness on Tuesday to emphasize how outnumbered the police officers were who defended the Capitol. Sgt. Gonell highlighted the disparity in the Capitol Police’s preparedness plans between last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the pro-Trump events of January 6th. “As America and the world watched in horror what was happening to us at the Capitol, we did not receive the timely reinforcements and support we needed,” Gonell said. “In contrast, during the Black Lives Matter protest last year, U.S. Capitol Police had all the support we needed and more. Why the different response?”
Why indeed. Was the leadership of the Capitol Police unaware of the planning happening in public views in the lead-up to January 6th? Did it deem a pro-Trump demonstration less of a threat than racial-justice activists? Was there any political interference with the preparation for January 6th? No probe of the insurrection is complete without finding answers to these questions.