US Capitol probe: questions of race and double standards must be addressed, say experts

Investigations into how pro-Trump rioters came to overrun the Capitol building need to reckon with US history, experts say, and whether a racial double standard has been embedded in forces including the Capitol Police.

Footage of the storming of the Capitol on January 6 showed the mob quickly overtaking the building’s dedicated law enforcement agency and being left to roam the complex, vandalising lawmakers’ offices and forcing Congress to shelter in a secure location.

Questions over why the Capitol Police did not call for reinforcements earlier or use greater force against the mob led to the resignation of Steven Sund, the Capitol Police chief. But some law enforcement experts say the inquiries into the failures need to consider fundamental gaps in America’s approach to law enforcement.

Many, including president-elect Joe Biden, have noted a contrast between the treatment of the rioters and the aggressive policing of Black Lives Matter protesters last year.

“This was by all accounts an extremely puffed-up police force,” said Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who is also part of a team monitoring the Cleveland Police under a settlement with the US Department of Justice.

“They have a budget that rivals most major cities and a force of 2,000 police officers — that’s more than the City of Cleveland — for a very small area.”

So why did they lose control of the situation? “We have to start telling the truth about what police were originally commissioned to do and figuring out if we really do want the double standard to be removed,” said Ms Hardaway.

New York police officers detain a demonstrator during the Black Lives Matter protests in July last year © REUTERS

Many police departments in the southern US evolved from citizen groups formed to capture runaway slaves. Efforts including the Kerner Commission set up by President Lyndon Johnson to study the riots of the 1960s helped to clamp down on overt racial discrimination. Americans had been scandalised by the image of a Birmingham police officer setting an attack dog on a black teen during the Civil Rights movement, said University of Michigan professor Christian Davenport.

That work had some success in moderating differences between law enforcement responses to black and white groups of protesters in the decades since, said Mr Davenport. But police behaviour in recent demonstrations suggests progress had been reversed, he added.

It was clear that the Capitol mob presented a greater threat than any of the Black Lives Matter protesters, added Mr Davenport.

He said: “If the threat response dynamic is there, that should have elicited greater policing because they were asking for potentially the overthrow of part of the democratic process and maybe physically harming some leaders, as opposed to Black Lives Matter demanding greater accountability but still playing within the structures of the political-legal system.”

While most officers fought to hold off the mob and protect lawmakers, others appeared to be friendly with the rioters, putting on their Trump hats and posing for photos. Two officers were suspended and 10 more are under investigation. An additional 13 off-duty police officers from across the country are suspected of having participated in the riot.

Demonstrators in Washington in May 2020 as they protest against the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis © AP

“What I saw was a white mob being treated in a way they’re accustomed to being treated in their day to day,” said Ms Hardaway. “It makes me wonder why that can’t happen for blacks?”

Mr Davenport said it was naive to believe that police officers were free of the beliefs and bias of their communities: “We forget that before they are officers, they are family and friends and neighbours and they are immersed within society and then asked to stand above it and adjudicate and act accordingly.”

Representatives of the Capitol Police did not respond to a request for comment.

In the wake of this summer’s racial justice protests, a range of solutions has been floated to combat bias in the nation’s police forces. These run the gamut from disbanding existing forces and replacing them with community-based organisations focused on social services to greater accountability measures following the use of force. One place to start would be curtailing the amount of discretion that commanders get to use in deciding what is and is not a threat, said Mr Davenport.

“Why does one person get to decide when the police need help?” he said.

The Capitol Police has its own history of alleged discrimination to contend with. A group of more than 250 black officers has had an open lawsuit against the department since 2001, saying in court documents that one officer found a noose in his locker and that both black officers and the white officers who befriended them were regularly subjected to racial slurs.

Another black female officer filed an additional discrimination suit in 2016.

Activists have also pointed to the fact that only 29 per cent of Capitol Police officers are black. By comparison, the neighbouring Washington Metropolitan Police reported that their workforce was 52 per cent black in 2018. The population of Washington DC is 46 per cent black.

“You need to realise that when you have bad example after bad example after bad example, you have a pattern,” said Ms Hardaway. “It is a result of law enforcement’s mission and culture.”

Brian Dunn, a Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer who specialises in police misconduct, was not surprised to see rioters overrun the Capitol Police. “All of these things crystallised on January 6,” said Mr Dunn. “You have to understand that this is as American as baseball and apple pie.”

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