‘January 6 changed everything’: Will Capitol riots mark a return to fortress policing?

Sheaths of chain-link fencing topped by barbed wire is “not a pretty sight” in downtown Minneapolis, concedes Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson.

Around the local courthouse, a large outer perimeter and a more restrictive inner core now serves as the centerpiece of an elaborate effort to secure the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, accused in the murder of George Floyd.

If the scene looks familiar, it should.

The security plan known as Operation Safety Net, Hutchinson said, was drawn in part from law enforcement’s extraordinary show of force after the deadly siege of the U.S. Capitol – including the swath of iron fencing and strategically placed armored vehicles.

A woman walks past layers of barbed wire fence and razor wire in front of Hennepin County Government Headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 3, 2021. Security measures are being increased and expected to see more police and National Guard soldiers in downtown Minneapolis before jury selection begins at the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd's death.

“January 6 changed everything,” the sheriff said, referring to the date that now takes its place on a calendar of American tragedy. “We just could not let that happen here.”

A new assault, which left one officer dead last week when a vehicle rammed a barricade, has reignited a debate over more extreme security measures in Washington. But three months after the Captiol riots, some of the hardest lessons learned in wake of the deadly insurrection continue to be applied by law enforcement authorities across the country. This fortification of defenses comes as others campaign to reduce law enforcement’s footprint following months of social justice protests against aggressive policing spurred by Floyd’s death. 

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Immediately after Jan. 6., officials in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Olympia, Washington; Lansing, Michigan and other state capitals similarly fortified their defenses to guard against potentially violent demonstrations timed to the inauguration. Some of those measures remain in place, including in Pennsylvania where heavily armed officers in tactical gear continue to patrol the three main entrances to the Capitol building.

“There is no more important lesson that has been drawn from what happened in Washington, than the need to be prepared,” said Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the state Department of General Services, which includes the 100-officer Capitol police force. “You can’t be caught off guard.”

Yet the heavy level of preparations, including recent recommendations for the creation of a “quick-reaction force” contained in a soberingreport in the Capitol attack and the looming extremist threat, has fueled concerns of a law enforcement over-reaction resulting in increased reliance on para-military tactics that escalated tensions during last summer’s social justice protests prompted by the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans.

“What happened on Jan. 6 is being looked at closely by police chiefs across the country who could be faced again with managing large demonstrations,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the law enforcement think tank Police Executive Research Forum. “I don’t think any community wants to see police dressed up like soldiers. But they also want to be prepared.

“There is a new dynamic,” Wexler said. “Police are viewing any kind of demonstration as having the potential of going from largely peaceful to a riotous mob. Now, they are going to err on the side of having too many resources.”

‘The wrong plan’

Every evaluation so far of law enforcement’s preparation and response to the Capitol riots has depicted cascading failures of intelligence sharing, training and equipping officers who were badly overrun by an armed mob bent on halting the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win.

“We all believed that the plan met the threat; we all now know we had the wrong plan,” former House sergeant at arms Paul Irving told a joint Senate investigating committee in February.

Paul Irving, former House sergeant at arms
We all believed that the plan met the threat; we all now know we had the wrong plan.

Within weeks of that testimony, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore delivered a report recommending a dramatic transformation of the Capitol Police force marked by the addition of hundreds of officers and analysts and calls for a more robust and streamlined partnership with the D.C. National Guard.

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While proposals for greater military involvement loomed large in the report, former Capitol Police chief Terrance Gainer, a member of Honore’s task force, said considerable attention was focused on “striking a balance” that would not accentuate an onerous security presence in public spaces when unnecessary.

“There was quite a bit of discussion about that,” Gainer said. “It is an ongoing and– never-ending conversation that police agencies across the country are having when faced with the question of how to manage public demonstrations that can go bad.”

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Among the most striking failures in the response to the Capitol riots, was that Pentagon officials delayed authorizing D.C. National Guard troops by more than three hours, despite pleas of then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, the D.C. Guard commander testified.

At a hearing March 3, Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard, explains the delay in riot response to senators examining the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

At a hearing March 3, Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard, explains the delay in riot response to senators examining the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Greg Nash, AP

Honore’s report makes recommendations in an attempt to mitigate those failures. But Gainer said some of the most crucial proposals — improving intelligence collection; boosting staffing and training — could go far to ease future reliance on heavy military involvement.

“Sometimes there is a need for overwhelming force to counter-act a flash mob,” Gainer said. But they (the National Guard) are not a natural part of community policing.

“The Hill,” the former chief said, referring to the Capitol’s iconic location, “is a community of 30,000 overseen by a whole world watching. What message do we want to send?”

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the country, had no objections to a more direct relationship between the Guard and Capitol police, if the association offered more protection for Capitol officers.

“I don’t know anybody arguing against the involvement of the military, if it’s going to provide for officer safety,” Pasco said.

Guardian vs. Warrior

Before last summer — when military helicopters buzzed protesters during social justice demonstrations in D.C., and federal agents scooped up suspects in unmarked vehicles in similar demonstrations in Portland, Oregon — there was Ferguson, Missouri.

Days and nights of rioting that followed the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, were accompanied by troubling images of local law enforcement’s paramilitary-like response.

Armed police in riot gear move in to make arrests as demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on August 19, 2014. Protestors took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri for another day to voice their outcry over the police slaying of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH ORG XMIT: LWS125

Street scenes appeared ripped from a battlefield, not an American city, with officers dressed in camouflage, armed with heavy weapons and deployed in armored vehicles.

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The Ferguson response prompted such a backlash that the Obama administration banned the distribution of some military surplus equipment to police. The policy was rolled back during the Trump administration.

Yet the debate over modern policing tactics remains unsettled.

A 2015 presidential study group formed after Ferguson, known as the 21st Century Policing Task Force, seized on the paramilitary tactics used by police as often more provocative than pacifying while threatening to undermine community trust in law enforcement.

21st Century Policing Task Force
Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.

“Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public,” the task force concluded. “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.”

Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who co-chaired the policing task force, said law enforcement’s approach to major security events “needs to be a balanced one.”

“It requires a careful assessment of what police are facing to minimize the appearance of a military operation that can undermine civilian trust,” said Robinson, now a professor of criminal justice at George Mason University.

Robinson said the heavy security presence in Minneapolis are likely appropriate given the existing community tensions, less than a year removed from the rioting that followed Floyd’s death.

Minneapolis authorities, especially police Chief Medaria Arradondo, face a “very difficult situation,” Robinson said, referring to his role in helping to manage the security operation made necessary by the trial of one of his former officers.

“The police chief may have the toughest job in America right now,” Robinson said.

‘We need peace to do justice’

The courthouse where Chauvin now stands trial is a modern day castle: surrounded by concentric rings of concrete barriers, razor-wire and tall metal fences.

Security preparations underway for Chauvin trial


Camouflaged men carrying semi-automatic rifles patrol the inner perimeter from the building’s parapets, Humvees and other military vehicles parked below.

Members of the Minnesota National Guard work alongside police officers; it’s hard to tell them apart from a distance because they are sometimes dressed so similarly.

Vehicles entering the compound are screened by law enforcement or soldiers peering from slits in the fence, adorned with signs that say “You are welcome here” and list a long series of prohibited items and conduct.

“The fencing and the military presence does not feel welcoming,” said Trahern Crews, a leader of Black Lives Matter Minnesota.

Trahern Crews, a leader of Black Lives Matter Minnesota
The fencing and the military presence does not feel welcoming.

Crews said the security measures stand in stark contrast to the lax security precautions taken prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, when mostly white people attacked Congress.

“I feel it’s racist and a waste of money that could be used for housing the homeless or year-round youth employment.”

Hennepin County Sheriff Hutchinson, part of a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement officials involved in the security planning, makes no apologies for extraordinary precautions.

He acknowledges the “delicate balance” necessary to secure both public safety and free speech rights of demonstrators, a lesson complicated by last summer’s protests, subsequent calls for defunding police agencies and January’s Capitol attack.

“I was watching television like the rest of the world (during the Capitol assault),” the sheriff said. “It was heartbreaking; I was disgusted.”

The trial security plan is designed to avoid a replays of last summer or Jan. 6.

“We have to make sure the trial goes on without issues,” Hutchinson said. “We need peace to do justice.”

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