Sitting on my bed on the evening of Jan. 3, 2021, days before the infamous insurrection on our nation’s capitol, I wrote in my intelligence assessment the words that would come to haunt me and this country in the years that followed: “Congress itself is the target on the 6th.” This, combined with the nearly 70 pieces of raw intelligence I sent up my chain of command warning of violence, was largely ignored.
At the time I was the Assistant Director of Intelligence and Interagency Coordination at the United States Capitol Police. I was providing relevant, necessary information to the leadership. But it didn’t result in action.
If I had been a man writing those prescient words, would they have listened? Would the outcome of January 6th have been different?
Perhaps. And it’s infuriating that, in 2023, I must even consider that. But what really makes my blood boil—what really keeps me up at night—is whether we’ve learned enough from what happened in 2021 to keep the Capitol safe in 2024 and, more importantly, whether we’re willing to confront a larger issue: the danger that our senators and congresspeople are in on a daily basis.
As election season approaches, in what very well could be a rematch between Biden and Trump, the Capitol Police will be ready for the next certification of the electoral votes. Surely, they will have anti-scale fences, the National Guard, and other law enforcement partners on hand to protect against the threats they know.
When—not if—there is another attack from an unknown threat though, will they be ready for that?
All signs point to no.
The next crisis will likely be the result of hostility toward a member of Congress. Often fueled by extremist ideology, just as January 6th was, violence against elected officials is the most immediate danger facing the legislative branch today. The volume of threats members of Congress have received has grown to astronomical numbers, much more than the small team of investigators at the Capitol Police can handle.
The things I saw firsthand as the Assistant Director of Intelligence at the Capitol Police that allowed them to fail on January 6—poor communication, disjointed leadership, organizational silos, unclear or nonexistent guidance, and a lack of accountability—are cultural issues that still have not been adequately addressed. This will inevitably result in failure. Again.
Officers and agents alike are overworked, and with the overwhelming volume, the threats cannot be given the dedicated attention they need. With the high attrition rate and the difficulties police departments across the country are having in recruiting new officers to fill their ranks, the Capitol Police are not well positioned to detect, prevent, or respond to the next threat.
“The Capitol Police need a complete overhaul. The safety of Congress and our democracy requires it.”
This was evident in November 2022 when Paul Pelosi, husband of then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, was attacked inside his home. Although his house had security, the Capitol Police who were responsible for monitoring those security cameras failed to do so. Only ten members of Congress receive regular protective details; the remaining 525 members are left on their own to find security.
The Capitol Police need a complete overhaul. The safety of Congress and our democracy requires it. Specifically, Congress should consider:
1. Moving the Capitol Police to be a protective workforce. Congress must separate protection of people from protection of buildings. The mission of the Capitol Police should be narrowed to focus exclusively on providing protection to members of Congress. The Capitol Police have demonstrated they are not capable of protecting the Capitol building against a large mob. The only reason groups have not been successful at breaking into the Capitol before is because none have ever tried. By streamlining the Capitol Police’s mission, they’ll have a greater opportunity for success and, if done right, it will provide enhanced safety for our elected officials.
2. Transferring the responsibility of securing congressional buildings to the Sergeant-at-Arms offices or another federal entity. The responsibility of protecting the congressional buildings should fall to the Sergeant-at-Arms offices or another capable federal agency like the U.S. Marshals, who are also responsible for protecting federal courthouses.
3. Giving jurisdiction of investigations of threats to the FBI. The Capitol Police do not have the staff or expertise to handle the threat workload or develop cases that are more favorable to prosecution. The FBI has offices throughout the United States and beyond and is better able to absorb this massive workload. Even with the Capitol Police’s two field offices and a handful of others contemplated in the future, they do not have the footprint, nor the staffing, to adequately handle the volume of threat cases in the field.
4. Requiring the Capitol Police to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Though there are committees charged with oversight of the Capitol Police, with a Congress so divided, oversight is often manipulated for political gain. Therefore, oversight should shift to the American people by permitting records to be requested under FOIA. While members of Congress may be concerned about sensitive information about them specifically being leaked, the law already provides exemptions and exclusions from release. Subjecting the Capitol Police to FOIA would provide a greater level of transparency and accountability.
While there are many paths to ensure accountability and meaningful reform, one thing is certain: the Capitol Police cannot allow themselves to fail again.
Julie Farnam served as the Assistant Director of Intelligence and Interagency Coordination at the United States Capitol Police from October 2020-June 2023. She is the author of Domestic Darkness: An Insider’s Account of the January 6th Insurrection, and the Future of Right-Wing Extremism.