More than six months after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, the identity of the officer who shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbit is still unknown. It’s unusual, according to experts, for an officer involved in a shooting to remain anonymous for so long. But it’s also not the only information the Capitol Police isn’t willing — or required — to hand over to the public.
Watchdog groups worry that a lack of transparency will follow the Capitol Police in its recently announced expansion outside of Washington, D.C. The department revealed this month it will open offices in California and Florida, with the possibility of more locations in the future.
Unlike other law enforcement agencies, the Capitol Police are not required to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. That means it’s up to the agency whether it reveals details of arrests, staff information, complaints from the public, Inspector General reports, its procedures and policies or how it spends its yearly budget of over half a billion dollars.
That makes the 2,000-strong force the “least transparent federal agency” that Daniel Schuman, the policy director for Demand Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for progressive policies, says has ever seen.
Schuman said his group had spent years researching the agency prior to Jan. 6 and that he was concerned about the plans for satellite offices outside its immediate jurisdiction.
“Because they are a legislative branch agency, they are not under a legal requirement to disclose most of their documents, and they do not do so,” Schuman told Zenger, adding that he questioned what oversight would be in place for the Capitol Police state offices. “How do you oversee what’s happening at those offices? How do you know it’s not a boondoggle?”
“You don’t have the same kind of protections that you would ordinarily expect in a police agency,” added Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which monitors complaints about law enforcement.
Federal law enforcement agencies already operate with more secrecy than local authorities, explained Smith. But he said that the Capitol Police takes that to another level.
It’s not only watchdog groups that have expressed concerns about the agency.
After the Jan. 6 riots, the agency did not hold any press conferences or immediately release its Inspector General report on the day. Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) wrote a statement “to express frustration with [the Capitol Police’s] unwillingness to release information to the public or answer media questions” regarding the riots.
The agency has also faced other controversies over the years.
In 2013, Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist, was shot to death by Capitol Police and Secret Service officers — with her 13-month-old daughter in the car — after she led police on a chase near the Capitol. The Justice Department never made the findings of an investigation public.
According to the department’s self-reported data from 2018 to 2020, half of 745 recorded incidents involving officers were traffic stops and 14.2 percent were drug related. These incidents often occurred away from the Capitol, including at the nearby Union Station.
It’s that kind of mission creep that Smith says he finds troubling.
“We know they don’t stay within their lane,” he told Zenger.
Although Jan. 6 was an action by extremist right-wing groups, Smith said there are no constraints on the Capitol ultimately targeting others from their new locations.
“You can easily see them start to surveil anyone that’s got a political axe to grind against the government,” he said, noting it could include unrelated groups like Black Lives Matter. “Things that have nothing to do with the Capitol might get caught up in those kinds of investigations.”
Meanwhile, last month the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee passed a $4.8 billion fiscal 2022 bill that would boost the Capitol Police’s budget from $88.4 million to $603.9 million. It came after the Democrat-controlled House in May had passed a $1.9 billion supplemental funding package to provide emergency funds to the Capitol Police, after its budget reportedly came under strains due to expenses and overtime accrued after Jan. 6.
Even some Democrats expressed discontent at the rapid expansion of the agency.
“Increasing law enforcement funds does not inherently protect or safeguard the Capitol Hill or surrounding D.C. community,” said Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) after voting against supplemental funding, which is now before the Senate.
The Defense Department also recently approved a request by the Capitol Police for eight Persistent Surveillance Systems Ground — Medium (PSSG-M) units, which has been used by the military to surveil large areas in high-resolution video and store that data.
It’s unknown whether the Capitol Police will deploy this technology outside of Washington, D.C. — but, at the same time, the agency is not required to tell the public if it does.
The Capitol Police did not respond to repeated requests from Zenger for comment.
However, Tim Barber, an agency spokesman, has said in media interviews that he imagines his department operating more like the Secret Service — with a nationwide reach.
Carl Takei, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality, noted that other federal agencies, such as FBI, already have a well-developed nationwide presence and the power to investigate threats against officials.
“This unnecessary expansion follows the same pattern as other major law enforcement failures, in which the response of elected officials is often to write a blank check to the agency without assurances that the additional money or expanded agency role is actually necessary,” Takei told Zenger, “and without any meaningful safeguards or consideration of who might be harmed by a law enforcement agency expanding its mandate and presence.”
(Edited by Alex Willemyns and Kristen Butler)
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