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OPINION

The attack on the Capitol was a law enforcement failure

Angry, violent mobs like the Trump supporters on Wednesday can make police seem more necessary than ever. But that’s a shortsighted conclusion.

This wasn’t a case of too little police — the Capitol Police, the agency tasked with protecting Congress, is armed with lethal and less-lethal weapons and has over 2,000 officers. Instead, it was a serious failure of law enforcement.
This wasn’t a case of too little police — the Capitol Police, the agency tasked with protecting Congress, is armed with lethal and less-lethal weapons and has over 2,000 officers. Instead, it was a serious failure of law enforcement.Samuel Corum/Getty

On the morning of Congress’s vote to certify the 2020 presidential election, President Trump stood outside the White House, spewed lies about voter fraud, and instructed his supporters to go to the Capitol building to aid in the effort to overturn the will of the American people. And an angry mob did just that: They swarmed the Capitol building, clashed with police, and breached both chambers of Congress. The House and the Senate were promptly evacuated, and Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the certification, was escorted out because of threats to his safety, as were members of Congress, staff, and members of the media.

The breach was a stunning display of sedition, an overt attempt by hundreds of civilians to overthrow the federal government. And after seeing it unfold, it might be tempting to conclude that it was an argument for more police, even more militarized police. After all, how did the police allow the protesters to make it that far in the first place? The reality, however, is that this wasn’t a case of too little police — the Capitol Police, the agency tasked with protecting Congress, is armed with lethal and less-lethal weapons and has over 2,000 officers. Instead, it was a serious failure of law enforcement.

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Police agencies across the country are well-equipped to quash violent crowds, and that is especially the case in Washington, D.C., home to some of the most secure buildings in the world and where federal law enforcement agencies have autonomy to patrol the city in addition to local police. And though cities and police agencies argue that their large budgets and militarized weapons are justified because they are used to prevent violence, the truth is that they are often misused to suppress people’s First Amendment rights.

Over the summer, Black Lives Matter protesters who marched mostly peacefully through the streets of D.C. were met with violent resistance from local police and federal troops. They were tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, shoved, and beaten. In some cases, police forces used military helicopters as a weapon against unarmed civilians. And yet when pro-Trump, antidemocratic rioters stormed a federal building — when insurrectionists invaded the Capitol, in other words — they appeared to draw a much tamer response from law enforcement. (In one instance, a police officer even posed for photos with some of the insurrectionists.)

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These two kinds of police responses were starkly different examples of police failures. One was an overwhelming show of force — an overreaction by law enforcement to citizens mostly peacefully demanding their rights — and the other was an underprepared police force, which knew for weeks that people planned to have a mass protest outside the Capitol on Wednesday and still failed to effectively barricade the building or preemptively request the needed backup. And though these incidents highlight the failures of overpolicing and underpolicing, both the Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol insurrection underscore the incompetence that plagues American police agencies.

Angry, violent mobs like the one on Wednesday can make police seem more necessary than ever. They might even make weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets seem reasonable when they do something like successfully breach the Capitol building. But in the end, more officers or more weapons in the hands of incompetent police departments will not make Americans safer. If the summer protests were any indication, that would actually be more dangerous.

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Abdallah Fayyad can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.