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Capitol Police chief: Jan. 6 failures 'largely' fixed but extremism threat persists

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., applauds U.S. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Alex Brandon
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AP
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., applauds U.S. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Updated December 6, 2022 at 12:51 PM ET

Congressional leaders have bestowed their highest honor — the Congressional Gold Medal — to the United States Capitol Police and Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department for defending the U.S. Capitol from a violent attack on Jan. 6, 2021.

At an award ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, leaders from both parties described vivid memories of the riot that day and the bravery of officers who responded to the chaos.

"Thank you for having our backs. Thank you for saving our country. Thank you for being not just our friends but our heroes," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger, who accepted a medal on behalf of his department, told NPR a day before the ceremony that while there is still more work to do, the force is "much better prepared" to respond to future threats to the Capitol. Manger said "the big things, the big failures that occurred on January 6th have largely been fixed."

Manger is confident his department is prepared to respond to another major event at the Capitol

There have been multiple reviews of the events leading up to and on the day of the riot led by far right wing supporters of then President Donald Trump who breached the Capitol to try and overturn the 2020 election results. Several people died, including police officers who died of their injuries and some who responded to the attack who later died by suicide. More than 140 officers suffered physical injuries. The House select committee created to examine the riot is expected to release its report later this month.

Manger said he doesn't lose sleep over whether his department is prepared to respond to another major event or protest. But he said, "I do lose some sleep over the fact that some of these extremist groups are still active." He said law enforcement agencies have learned a lot since the attack, but so have extremist groups.

Manger was tapped to serve as chief of the department in the summer of 2021, replacing acting chief Yogananda Pittman. He had four decades of experience and has led two major police departments in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, both outside of Washington, D.C.

In the last year and a half, Manger made staffing a major focus, and set hiring 280 officers a year as a target. He said the department is on track to meet that goal with 195 officers in some stage of training now.

Manger opened field offices in California and Florida, the states where the most threats to lawmakers come from, but he said eventually he would like to have an agent in all 50 states to help track and investigate the rising number of possible issues. "I think that's a very long-term goal. And there's other things that are probably a little higher priority than getting all 50 states covered. But getting a few more out there would certainly help us."

Rising threats a strain on the USCP and need for more field offices

Manger acknowledged there were a lot of communication and intelligence failures that led up to the insurrection. Some of the House hearings on the January 6th attack detailed how much planning by some far-right groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys about coming to Washington that day was discussed by those in the U.S. Secret Service, but many of those details weren't shared extensively.

Referring to the communication issues both internally and with partner law enforcement agencies in D.C. and in other federal agencies, Manger said, "those are the kinds of things that we immediately knew we had to fix. And if you look at our intelligence operations, what we're doing today, it's just night and day in comparison to what we had before [January] 6th."

But the chief emphasized that the threat landscape facing the USCP has changed dramatically over the last few years — for the country and also for his department. He said the recent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul, highlighted the need to step up protection services for lawmakers. Capitol police cameras had been installed and recorded the attack, but since the speaker was in Washington when it happened, no one was monitoring them.

He said the investigation into that attack at Pelosi's San Francisco home is largely completed and prosecutors are still working on their case. In terms of the USCP, Manger said there's been a review to determine the kinds of improvements that need to be made. He said the department added a request for more resources to earmark for threats and protection responsibilities as part of next year's budget request. Congress is still debating funding for the 2023 fiscal year but if they do not reach a deal, the department may have to assess how to allocate resources from a budget that would keep spending at this year's levels.

He pointed out that that the level of threats against lawmakers has increased almost tenfold. That environment means the department needs to change how it is staffed. In addition to protecting the Capitol campus, "we do criminal investigations, we investigate threats against Congress, we provide protection for members of Congress. So there's a lot of of responsibilities that we have. And with the changing threat landscape, those responsibilities have just gotten more demanding."

Security changes in next Congress

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was nominated by the House GOP conference to serve as the next speaker when his party takes control in January, has vowed to remove the magnetometers that were installed to screen members around the House chamber as a security precaution after the January 6 riot. Manger points out that decision to install those devices was made by the Sergeant at Arms, the top House security official. He said any move to remove those would be up to the Sergeant at Arms and leadership.

"We really focus on the screening points where people enter the building. So hopefully anybody that enters the building would have already been screened," he said.

But lawmakers with their congressional pins are not required to go through screening. Asked about proposals to remove the exemption that lawmakers have so they can keep licensed guns in their offices even though they cannot carry them into the Capitol, Manger said "that's a bigger debate than I care to get involved with."

Congressional Gold Medals in honor of the United States Capitol Police, the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police and those who protected the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are seen ahead of a ceremony at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
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AP
Congressional Gold Medals in honor of the United States Capitol Police, the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police and those who protected the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are seen ahead of a ceremony at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Manger said his charge is protecting people while they're in the Capitol and for lawmakers while they are traveling back and forth. "Everybody's got an opinion about whether you're safer with a gun, without a gun. What I can control is to make sure that my folks are assigned to the areas and are doing the things that keep everybody — whether it's members, staff and the public — keeping everybody safe on this campus."

Congressional Gold medal honor

Manger said Tuesday's ceremony honoring the department means a great deal, and he pointed to the list of those who have received it in the past, saying "you're in pretty, pretty high company."

Recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include the Tuskegee Airmen, astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, military generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, civil rights leader Rosa Parks and athletes Jesse Owens and Arnold Palmer.

Congress passed a resolution last summer, which President Joe Biden signed into law, honoring both the USCP and Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, the two agencies who led the response to the attack. Manger said he was glad the MPD rushed to respond and that his department got help from other law enforcement partners.

But he said he wants people to know the recognition is important, not just for those who battled and protected lawmakers, staffers and the building, but for the broader work his officers continue to do each day.

"January 6th was a very dark day in our country's history and certainly a dark day for the Capitol Police. And I've often said that anyone who defines the Capitol Police Department by that one day is making a mistake, because these men and women are amazing professionals, courageous, smart and hardworking and very dedicated to their country."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.