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Training And Accountability In The Capitol Police Investigations


Congress has made it clear it is going to keep investigating the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol last month, but investigations so far has cast a shadow on the very force charged with protecting Congress, the U.S. Capitol Police. So far, the department has suspended six of its officers with pay for their actions on that day, and another 29 are being investigated.

The department began their internal investigation after images and videos shared online raised questions about the behavior of some officers that day. Those in command on that day have already been forced to resign, but the acting chief of Capitol Police, Yogananda Pittman, says that any member whose behavior is not in keeping with the department's rules of conduct, quote, "will face appropriate discipline." But we also want to recall that one Capitol police officer died from injuries he sustained that day, and two more died by suicide in the days following.

We wanted to examine this further and consider what should happen next, so we called Seth Stoughton for this. He is a former police officer. He is now a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and police training and accountability are among his research subjects. Professor Stoughton, thanks so much for being back with us.

SETH STOUGHTON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you wanted to be sure to point out that the Capitol Police is not like a, quote-unquote, "typical police department." So tell us more about how it's different and why you think that may be important here.

STOUGHTON: Sure. So when we think about most police agencies, we're thinking about city police departments or county police departments - county sheriff's offices. There are clear lines of political accountability. There are a wide range of duties, responding to calls for service and the like.

Capitol Police is, in contrast, very specialized. It's a very large, very well-funded police force that's responsible for a very small geographic area. And the community that they police are lawmakers and employees in the Capitol Complex and the visitors to the Capitol Complex. They have much more of a security function than they do a responsive or patrol function or even an investigative function.

MARTIN: So, of course, you know, what occasions, I think, a lot of interest in this and certainly what has prompted investigation is that, you know, we've seen videos of one officer taking a selfie with one of the mob members. Other videos show barriers being moved. You know, observers are wondering whether this means that they were inviting the mob in. I mean, could there be reasonable explanations for actions like that?

STOUGHTON: There could be. And there could be really problematic explanations, which is exactly why I think we need a thorough and meticulous investigation. For example, if an officer who lacks adequate instruction from their supervisors is looking for ways to calm the crowd, is looking for ways to avoid escalation, then taking a selfie might be a tactically advantageous thing for the officer to do, even if the officer is not intending to communicate their support for the crowds - well, the reason the crowd was there, to invade the Capitol Complex. On the other hand, it could indicate the officer's support for the purpose that the crowd was therefore, to violently invade the Capitol Complex. Without some pretty thorough investigation, it's very difficult to tell.

MARTIN: It is not a secret that some of these white supremacist organizations target police officers and military service members. It's my understanding that this has been a concern for some time. So I guess I'd like to ask if this is a concern of yours. And how would you get to that? How would you address this?

STOUGHTON: Yes, it is a concern. And it should drive a range of policy responses, including vetting and policy development. How should an agency respond when it has information that might suggest that someone may be motivated to join by white supremacist ideology or the like?

It seems like a very simple solution. Well, you don't hire that person. But that's actually not as simple a solution as it seems. It's not always facially obvious. Sometimes there are indications without being hard evidence. This is part of the reason why large police organizations that have the capacity will do a little more thorough background check. But looking at law enforcement broadly, there are 18,000 agencies in the country, and almost half of them have less than 10 officers employed. Most agencies simply don't have the resources to do the type of thorough vetting that dealing with white supremacist infiltration really demands.

MARTIN: OK. So what should happen now? I mean, when something happens between a police force and the community they're supposed to protect, you know, how does that department regain trust from the community? What needs to happen now, in your view?

STOUGHTON: The investigations that are going on - and they're going to continue to go on for a while - need to answer a couple of different questions. The narrowest question that they need to answer is whether any individual officer engaged in misconduct. Did they do anything wrong? Not just did they make a decision that may not have been the best under difficult circumstances, but did they do something wrong?

I also think the reviews need to focus on whether the agency's leadership structure, including those supervisors who have since resigned or been forced out, what the failures there were. The intelligence structure - what information did they have? What information should they have? What were the failures from A to Z, essentially? What needs to happen and what needs to not happen for this ever to occur again?

Individual culpability is important, but we need to expect and demand that this investigation will identify structural failures that need to be avoided, systemic factors that need to be strengthened so that we aren't left in the position of officers not having good direction or coordination if there's ever a future incident like this one.

MARTIN: That was Seth Stoughton He's a former police officer. He is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina. Professor Stoughton, thank you so much for joining us once again.

STOUGHTON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.