A U. S. Capitol Police special agent helped unravel the case of the disgruntled bartender who was indicted last week in an apparent plot to kill House Speaker John Boehner by shooting him or poisoning his wine. The same Capitol police force also was enlisted in the FBI investigation of an Ohio man charged this week with scheming to detonate pipe bombs at the Capitol in support of the terrorist group ISIS.
Police tasked with protecting the U.S. Capitol used to spend much of their time patrolling the grounds. Today their beat extends far outside Washington.
It’s a big change from what the force did when Thomas Reynolds joined it in 1984. At the time, officers operated much like beat cops, maintaining order and safety, and handling low-level crimes and traffic, said Reynolds, who retired as assistant chief of the Capitol Police in 2013 after 29 years on the force.
Sure, there were security concerns. Death-threat letters reached congressional offices, particularly when a contentious issue was up for debate. But no one imagined back then that a jetliner might be aimed at the Capitol or that anthrax-laced letters would arrive in the mail.
“Now it’s more of a security protection force for the Capitol,” Reynolds says. “It’s entirely different.”
Today the Capitol Police partners with the FBI and other investigative agencies on terror threat cases, consults on security plans at lawmaker’s field offices and trains congressional staffers how to spot red flags that could signal danger.
Much of their focus is on preventing “lone wolf” attackers, such as the man who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a 2011 campaign event.
These attackers can pose the largest security threats because authorities often have no advance warning. “A lot of times, they don’t talk to anybody and say what they’re going to do,” said Reynolds, who oversaw the safety of congressional leaders after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The force’s “threat assessment team” conducts investigations and partners with the FBI to evaluate threats. “When I joined, there were three or four people” on the team, Reynolds said. When he left three decades later, the number had jumped to three of four times that, he said.
In 1998, two Capitol Police officers were killed when a gunman sidestepped a security checkpoint in the building. The killings added momentum to build the Capitol Visitor Center, an underground museum and meeting space that’s shifted pedestrian traffic and improved security.
Another turning point for the Capitol Police was 9/11. Before Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field, it was aimed at Washington and the Capitol was evacuated. The attacks led to a security overhaul, Reynolds said, including physical barriers and reorganization of where officers are positioned and the types of weapons they carry. “We went from regular law enforcement and security to anti-terrorist work,” he said.
Days after 9/11, letters laced with anthrax began arriving at news outlets and congressional offices. Several of Reynolds’ officers feared they had inhaled the deadly bacteria and were issued antibiotics. “That was pretty scary,” he said. “That pretty much shut the Capitol down.” Now all congressional mail is screened for anthrax.
Following 9/11, D.C.’s other high profile target – the White House – essentially sealed itself off from public visitors. By contrast, the U.S. Capitol is still basically open.
“Trying to put a security template on top of that is pretty difficult,” Reynolds says.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.