Capitol police opening offices in Florida, California to ‘investigate threats’ – more to come

Capitol police opening offices in Florida, California to ‘investigate threats’ – more to come

Police on Capitol Hill (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS) July 08, 2021 Liz George

Police on Capitol Hill (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

The United States Capitol Police (USCP) will open regional offices nationwide, beginning in California and Florida, in order to “investigate threats” made against members of Congress, Acting USCP Chief Yogananda Pittman announced on Tuesday.

“The USCP has enhanced our staffing within our Dignitary Protection Division as well as coordinated for enhanced security for Members of Congress outside of the National Capital Region,” Pittman’s statement read. “The Department is also in the process of opening Regional Field Offices in California and Florida with additional regions in the near future to investigate threats to Members of Congress.”

The chief’s statement comes in response to the breach of the United States Capitol on January 6.

“It has been six months since rioters attacked the United States Capitol and our brave police officers and law enforcement partners who fought valiantly to protect elected leaders and the democratic process,” Pittman stated. “We will never forget USCP Officers Brian Sicknick and Howie Liebengood, who died after the attack, nor the sacrifices of the nearly 150 law enforcement officers who were injured.”

Liebengood was one of two USCP officers who died of apparent suicides after the Jan. 6 incident. In March, his widow Serena Liebengood called on Pittman to consider his death as having been “in the line of duty” ABC News reported.

Pittman said the USCP has been working “around the clock” to improve security at the Capitol Complex and “pivot towards an intelligence-based protective agency.”

“The new USCP field offices will be in the Tampa and San Francisco areas. At this time, Florida and California are where the majority of our potential threats are,” the agency said to The News Service of Florida in an email Tuesday.

“A regional approach to investigating and prosecuting threats against members is important, so we will be working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in those locations. More field offices will be opening in the future,” the email continued.

In May, Capitol Police said in a statement that threats against lawmakers have increased 107 percent since 2020. The agency has dealt with more than 200 threat cases between January and March 2021, compared to 586 for the entirety of 2020 and 171 in 2017, CBS News reported.

The expansion of the USCP into nationwide offices has raised concerns, given that the agency is not subjected to typical methods of public accountability. A report from Roll Call last summer noted that the USCP is currently exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because it is part of the legislative branch, giving it a level of secrecy and a lack of established accountability methods that aren’t the case for other law enforcement agencies.

“Congress is not subject to the law, and the Capitol Police, as a component of the legislative branch, is also exempt from any FOIA request,” the report stated.

USCP Response to OIG Report #3

May 7, 2021 Press Release

The United States Capitol Police has already taken significant steps to implement the recommendations detailed in the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) third flash report on counter-surveillance and threat assessments.   

All recommended policy updates are being completed to reflect current practices and reference proper office names and equipment.  The Department has documented training requirements for its agents and analysts. Information from field agents is now promptly distributed within the Department, including to the Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division, which provides threat warning information and analysis of intelligence.

Of the 10 most recent OIG recommendations, the Department believes the most impactful are those specific to increasing threat assessment manpower and restructuring the Department to establish a stand-alone counter-surveillance entity – both of which require resources and authorization.   

As the Department has previously reported, the number of threats made against Congress has increased significantly. This year alone, there has been a 107% increase in threats against Members compared to 2020. Provided the unique threat environment we currently live in, the Department is confident the number of cases will continue to increase.

In its report, the OIG suggests the Department’s Threat Assessment Section be similar to the United States Secret Service (USSS). In 2020, the USSS, which has more than 100 agents and analysts, had approximately 8,000 cases. During the same time period, the USCP, which has just over 30 agents and analysts, had approximately 9,000 cases.

The USCP agrees a stand-alone counter-surveillance unit would be valuable. However, in order to fully implement this recommendation, the Department would require additional resources for new employees, training, and vehicles as well as approval from Congressional stakeholders.

Finally, the Department agrees that it could be more reliant on the FBI for threat assessments. In fact, through its long-standing relationship with the Department of Justice, the Department has requested additional investigative and enhanced prosecution assistance.

As always, the Department greatly appreciates its partnership with the Office of the Inspector General. Since the events of January 6th, USCP leadership team has been working closely with Congressional oversight to seek the needed resources to implement the OIG’s recommendations, as well as those from other reviews and assessments.

The agency has dealt with more than 200 threat cases between January and March 2021, compared to 586 for the entirety of 2020 and 171 in 2017, CBS News reported.

The expansion of the USCP into nationwide offices has raised concerns, given that the agency is not subjected to typical methods of public accountability. A report from Roll Call last summer noted that the USCP is currently exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because it is part of the legislative branch, giving it a level of secrecy and a lack of established accountability methods that aren’t the case for other law enforcement agencies.

Capitol Police, a department shrouded in secrecy

The police entity charged with protecting and securing Congress is not subject to FOIA requests

Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

By Chris MarquettePosted June 15, 2020 at 5:00am

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have called for an overhaul of law enforcement practices following the police killing of George Floyd, but those same lawmakers who want accountability and transparency nationwide aren’t taking a stance on whether their own department, the Capitol Police, should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. As a part of the legislative branch, the department remains exempt from the law.

House and Senate Democrats rolled out an expansive criminal justice bill on June 8 to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection and upgrade police training and policies.

Their legislation would, in part, create a national police misconduct registry, maintained by the Justice Department, that would be made public. It would also mandate state and local law enforcement agencies to report use of force data, disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion and age.

A Senate charge to revamp policing is being spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican.

Despite the public outcry for more transparency, none of the lawmakers who serve on committees whose jurisdiction includes the Capitol Police said the force charged with protecting and securing Congress should be subject to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act that requires federal agencies to disclose a large amount of government information to the public.

Congress is not subject to the law, and the Capitol Police, as a component of the legislative branch, is also exempt from any FOIA request.

[Capitol Police sex discrimination lawsuit proceeds with retaliation claim]

This reality leaves documents as fundamental as inspector general reports shielded from the public. On May 19, when CQ Roll Call asked, through FOIA, for annual Capitol Police inspector general reports dating back to 2015, James W. Joyce, a senior counsel for the department, said they need not complete the document request.

Joyce wrote in response to the email request: “please be advised that the United States Capitol Police, as a legislative branch entity, is not an ‘agency’ as defined by 5 U.S.C. §§ 551 et seq., under the Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, the USCP is not subject to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.”

A House Administration Committee aide, when asked for a Capitol Police IG report, said he was told those reports are “law enforcement sensitive” and “not a matter of public record.”

In a separate request for the most recent USCP inspector general report, spokeswoman Eva Malecki said “the Office of Inspector General is an independent office from the Department, and reports directly to the Capitol Police Board. Where the Inspectors General of the executive branch are required to post reports and audits on their web sites, the USCP IG statute does not require such public disclosure of its reports.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, ranking member on the House Administration Committee that oversees the Capitol Police, said he wants more transparency on the force but didn’t say whether it should be subject to FOIA.

“I will always be indebted to the outstanding USCP officers who saved my life and the lives of many of my colleagues on a baseball field three years ago and part of honoring them is ensuring we weed out any bad actors within the police force and improve department offerings for professional development,” the Illinois Republican said. “I believe part of doing that involves allowing the Chief to have final decision authority on employment decisions and increasing transparency from the department. Specifically, appropriately redacted IG reports, certain policing data from the department, and a publicly available annual reports detailing the activity of the department.”

A spokesperson for Chairperson Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment.

The proposed Legislative Branch budget for fiscal 2021 would boost spending for the Capitol Police, including increasing salary expenses from $379 million to $417.1 million over the previous year. General expenses would rise from $85.2 million to $103.1 million. This includes police cars, uniforms, weapons and security equipment. Overall, the combined salary and general expenses would make the Capitol Police budget $520.2 million.

The Capitol Police, which gets its funding from taxpayer money, is able to make arrests outside of the Capitol complex, including around Union Station. Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said Congress needs to address the opaqueness of the force.

“They operate not only on the Capitol grounds but they have a cooperation agreement with the city that permits them to make arrests off the Capitol grounds,” Smith said. “For them to be an agency operating in the District without the same kind of transparency that the District government has is really not a good thing, and Congress should address it and fix it.”

Demand Progress, a progressive organization, has written to several lawmakers asking for them to improve the accountability of the Capitol Police. The group’s policy director, Daniel Schuman, noted that almost 10 percent of annual arrests are made at Union Station. Many of those arrests are for traffic violations or drug use, according to Demand Progress.

“When the USCP is acting in a law enforcement capacity, it should be held to similar standards as other law enforcement agencies,” the letter says. “When it acts like a federal agency, it should be held to account like all federal agencies.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls the coffers for the police, said his panel is working on increasing transparency, but did not weigh in on FOIA.

“All police departments have an obligation to be transparent, and the U.S. Capitol Police is no exception,” Ryan said. “The Legislative Branch Subcommittee, as well as the other authorizing committees on Capitol Hill, conduct rigorous oversight of the USCP and continues to work to improve the availability and accessibility of arrest data and other information. We are currently looking into a number of improvements to expand transparency as we move through the FY 2021 cycle.”

Ryan’s counterpart on the committee, ranking member Jaime Herrera Beutler echoed her colleague. “We plan to keep working across the aisle to increase transparency and oversight of the U.S. Capitol Police, and will seek improvements in this regard as we work to craft the FY 2021 spending plan,” the Washington Republican said.

Representatives for leaders of the Senate committees with oversight of Capitol Police — Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairwoman Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.; ranking member Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.; Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; and ranking member Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. — did not comment.

Representatives for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer also did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the sponsor of the Democrats’ policing legislation, did not comment.

Anne Weismann, chief FOIA Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said she files several records requests with the Secret Service, and while they withhold some documents because they are sensitive to law enforcement operations, she calls the Capitol Police’s denial of records that are important to the public unnecessary.

“You have a police force that is answerable only to Congress, and not the public, even though they can take actions that will have a direct effect on the public,” Weismann said.

“This moment in time, it’s probably more striking than ever that we have a police force that does interact with the public, but there’s no public accountability,” Weismann said.

The Capitol Police have been hesitant to reveal information dating back years. In 2013, when 34-year old Miriam Carey was shot and killed by the Secret Service and Capitol Police, the department left many questions unanswered.

The Capitol Police union says the department needs to make overhauls to its system, including the addition of FOIA.

“The Union echoes recent calls for transparency and accountability at the USCP, including amending the Freedom of Information Act to apply to this Department,” said Gus Papathanasiou, the Labor Committee chairman. “USCP has refused to make available information that other police departments publicize as a matter of course, including the Capitol Police Board’s orders and regulations which govern employee working conditions. The Department’s insistence on secrecy ensures that the Union cannot monitor the parties’ relationship or fully require compliance with the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.”

When information has come to light about the Capitol Police, for instance, in court cases, the results have painted a largely unflattering picture. These include a systemic failure to properly supervise probationary officers, alleged sexual harassment and alleged discrimination.

“I think it is particularly shameful that the Capitol Police is so opaque and unaccountable to anybody,” Smith of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said.

When CQ Roll Call asked for a list of all USCP officers who have had complaints filed against them for misconduct since January 2018, what the alleged violation was, how did the department handle it and how many violations does each officer have in their file, Malecki said the department couldn’t provide the information, but she did give an overview of complaints.

There were 727 complaints lodged against the Capitol Police over a three-year span from 2017 through 2019, according to the summary of internal affairs investigations by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

“The Department holds itself and its employees to the highest levels of professionalism, and any allegation of employee misconduct is taken very seriously and is investigated thoroughly,” Malecki said. “All substantiated complaints involving USCP personnel result in the Department’s taking disciplinary action and/or requiring corrective training.”

As a follow-up question to the complaints disclosure, CQ Roll Call asked Malecki for the number of sworn officers employed by the Capitol Police. She didn’t answer that question and instead responded: “We have 2,300 officers and civilian employees.” This is a figure available on the public-facing website, but it doesn’t shed light on how many actual police officers are employed by Capitol Police.

There are approximately 2,000 sworn officers in the department, according to Papathanasiou. A former House Administration Committee aide told CQ Roll Call there are 1,900 sworn Capitol Police officers.

This is yet another example of the Capitol Police not disclosing information that is readily available at other law enforcement entities, such as D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department.

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