The responsibilities of the Capitol Police are vastly different from those of ordinary police departments. The force protects the Capitol grounds, members of Congress and staff, and it screens millions of visitors a year. Officers are expected to recognize the 535 lawmakers and to avoid offending them.
The delicacy of that task was on full display in 1983, when a House inquiry found that the Capitol Police had botched a drug investigation by creating “the impression that the investigation may have been terminated to protect members” — while noting that, to be sure, no members had been implicated.
Before last week’s televised scenes of officers attacked and outnumbered, the job of a Capitol Police officer was considered relatively safe and prestigious. The pay, starting at $64,000, is higher than at other departments in the Washington metro area, and the job offers a close-up view of dignitaries and heads of state. Officers occasionally make arrests for minor crimes like smoking marijuana outside Union Station, according to a report by a watchdog group that complained of “mission creep.”
“As a rule, you’re not working robberies and homicides and burglaries and disorderly conduct,” said Terry Gainer, who had a long career in other police departments before joining the Capitol Police, where he served as the chief and then, later, as the Senate sergeant-at-arms.
For decades, providing security for “the People’s House” has meant facing criticism for being too intrusive or, just as often, too lax.
The department is overseen by a board that includes the sergeants-at-arms from each chamber, who must answer to their respective majorities and who often take politics into account, former officials said, resulting in a hamstrung force that is rarely able to take swift unilateral action.
“When things started unfolding in an emergency, you want a chief who’s empowered by the sergeant-at-arms to do what needs to be done in an emergency, without playing ‘Mother, May I,’” Mr. Gainer said. “Sometimes you had to be prepared to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”