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Cops Who Joined the Capitol Riot Must Be Held Accountable

Officers cannot swear an oath to uphold the law then join Trump’s insurrection.

January 12, 2021
capitol riot
The Washington Post/Getty

The Trump-fueled fascist riot at the Capitol last week is not the end of the right-wing insurrection against the country and the Constitution. It's merely the most dramatic manifestation of it so far. The failure of elected Republican officials to both condemn the violence and identify its root causes almost certainly presages future attempts at mob justice. And the failed police response to the mob, even as some of their officers were being killed or wounded by the seditionists, requires many Americans to ask basic but until now unthinkable questions about life in a free and civil society.

You see the video of the Capitol Police letting the rioters into buildings and the photographs of cops posing for selfies with the insurrectionists, and you begin to wonder: who are the police going to protect the next time Trump’s mob rampages through a building or a city? You read about how the rioters later that night lounged around in area hotel lobbies without worry of arrest and you wonder: even if they have the will, do police officials in my town have the political strength to stand up to rank-and-file white supremacist cops in their midst?

All over the country, officers are returning to their hometowns from the Capitol riot. Some may actually have taken part in the deadly violence and are being investigated for their roles by local police officials. How these cops are received, by their communities, their colleagues, and their bosses, will help us tell a new chapter in an important story that has been brewing for years: dangerous links between right-wing extremists and law enforcement agencies existed long before Trump but like so many other authoritarian impulses the problem has gotten much worse since 2017.

There must be an accounting for law enforcement officials who attended any part of this lawless event. You cannot swear an oath to protect and serve, and to defend the law, and also share common cause with hate groups who attack law enforcement agents with American flags on the steps of the Capitol. You cannot allow yourself to be swallowed by baseless conspiracy theories — about the results of the 2020 election, for example, or about whether Vice President Mike Pence is a traitor who deserved to be hanged — and then return to your job of rationally sorting through evidence to solve crimes on behalf of your constituents. Conspiratorialist cops don’t deserve credibility from judges and juries.

I keep thinking of the story of David Ellis, the Trump-loving police chief of Troy, New Hampshire, who proudly attended Wednesday’s rally-turned-riot and then gave his name to a reporter covering the scene. Ellis says he departed the Capitol after the rally and before the riot and did not participate in what we all saw. Of the mob, he said on Thursday, “That wasn’t the way to handle things. … And I’ve said it before, you can’t solve things by violence.” Ellis’ boss, Board of Selectmen Chairman Richard Thackston, defended Ellis upon his return to the Granite State even though Ellis didn’t tell his bosses he was going to Washington.

“I personally find the events that happened yesterday appalling; they brought tears to my eyes, the thought that three people, four people lost their lives in an utterly unnecessary and pointless occurrence is tragic,” Thackston told New Hampshire Public Radio. “But I believe that any individual, any public servant has the right to participate in political events without fear of loss of employment or having it have any effect.” That framing — attendance at a “political event” generates First Amendment freedom — is a blueprint for how cops all over the country are going to try to justify their involvement in last week’s conflagration.

That argument, and the town defense of Ellis, didn’t sit well with many residents of Troy, and many others. By Sunday, the New York Times reported, officials there had to close the town hall because of threats against Ellis that came from all over the country. That same day, after the nation learned that a Capitol Police officer died from injuries suffered during the riot, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party called on Ellis to resign. At a minimum, Ellis should be required to answer questions, under oath, about why he thinks he still can be trusted as a peace officer after rallying for a baseless conspiracy theory.

Either Ellis knew by attending the “stop the steal” rally that he was placing himself among a mob of angry insurrectionists threatening violence on behalf of the president, in which case he is complicit in what followed, or he attended the rally in Washington oblivious to the right-wing extremist language that surrounded the event, in which case he’s not a very good cop. Either way, however, Ellis must more fully answer for his judgment and his action. Looks like he will get a pass from his bosses. Will he get a pass from his fellow officers as well? Residents of Troy have a right to know: why did Ellis go to an event so many feared would turn violent?

There’s so much we don’t know about why federal law enforcement officials in general, and the Capitol Police in particular, were so negligent in responding to the rally as it turned into a riot. But we know now that Capitol Police officials have started to suspend and investigate officers who collaborated with the rioters. We also know now that military veterans and active-duty military personnel were involved in the rally-turned-riot. And we know that Trump’s Pentagon restricted both the timing of the National Guard’s entry onto the scene and the manner in which Guard members could contribute to restoring order. Did the president ask Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to back off? Was it another “do me a favor, though” moment or did Miller come up with the idea himself knowing it had White House support?

You don’t need to be an expert in law enforcement to understand that this wasn’t a failure of imagination by federal or local law enforcement officials. They had all the intelligence they needed to understand that this particular crowd of protesters brought with them to the nation’s capital the potential for deadly violence. The choice not to immediately deploy the DC National Guard and accept help from adjacent states, the choice not to surround the Capitol with adequate force, are choices we all know would never have been made had the protesters been those of color marching for social or criminal justice.

That point was made repeatedly before the sun had even set on insurrection day. “White Entitlement on Parade” was one headline that was an apt descriptor for the scenes we saw in and around the Capitol. The rioters felt entitled to do what they did because they knew, or felt they knew, the cops wouldn’t stop them. “The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history,” wrote historian Timothy Snyder over the weekend. Start with the racist arguments made by Trump and his tribunes in and out of court — that Biden–Harris votes from largely Black cities and counties didn’t or shouldn’t count — and go from there.

There must be a political reckoning for the politicians and tribunes who incited the mob to riot. And there must be a nationwide reckoning over the extent to which the police officers we pay to protect us bring with them to their jobs the dangerous fantasies that animate Trump’s mob. If that doesn’t happen now, with Capitol Police officers dead and injured, with clear and convincing evidence that the very people who preach “law and order” the loudest turned against the police, it’s hard to imagine when it will ever happen. Add that to the growing list of questions, and tragedies, in the wake of one of the darkest days in American history.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.