The 1,800 men and women who make up the U.S. Capitol Police are walking archives of the fortress they protect.
Because the force’s turnover rate is so much lower than that of Congress, its members tell tales of a different Hill. They recall a place where the streets between congressional office buildings were open to traffic, where criminals from violent neighborhoods would come to hide, and where the date September 11, 2001, sounded just like another Tuesday.
Ten years ago, with the 1998 shooting of two fellow officers still fresh in their memories, armed assailants were the Hill’s biggest security threat. But the terrorist attacks added bombs to the list and the demolition of the infamous Arthur Capers dwellings south of the Capitol in 2004 reduced the number of minor crimes. Capers was part of the Capitol Police’s extended jurisdiction and has now been replaced by Nationals Park and mixed-income condominiums. The concerns over muggings and purse-snatchings gave way to the fear of one very serious attack—something that has changed the force's strategy.
National Journal spent a day with four Capitol Police officers, each from a different division, and learned how the job has changed over the past decade.
Officer Rick Larity: Patrol Division
Rick Larity was on the Hill getting credentialed when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. He spent the year that followed manning the doors of congressional office buildings, where all rookies put in their time. The job was slow, but Larity said he felt a strong sense of duty. He wouldn’t hear how the security had tightened until he was given the keys to a patrol car and learned that he had fewer roads to protect than his predecessors. Closing the roads between buildings like Longworth and Rayburn to cars that could carry bombs made the job of a patrol officer easier. But perpetrators fleeing the police by foot were still likely to run through those streets.
The real change he noticed was in 2004, when the Capers project was torn down to make way for mixed-income housing. Now, before Larity turns the corner on a gentrified M Street, part of the “extended jurisdiction” of his patrol, he warns that it might be boring: “Sometimes I couldn’t catch a cold out here.” In the old days, Larity was called in on such cases as shootings, stabbings, or once, a suicide by hanging in a park.
“It was like the Wild West,” Larity said. “And when the streets were still open, we had more of that crime coming through the Hill.”
Larity said 70 percent of his job is spent handling traffic violations. When he is called to provide backup on a crime scene, the city police nearly always have arrived there first.
Officer Stacey Wise: Crime Scene Investigator
Just two years into the job, Wise is still new compared to her colleagues, some of whom can boast careers of 20 years or longer. The veterans recall the days when the forensics lab was much busier, filled with guns to fingerprint and blood samples to collect and send to the FBI.
In those days, the crime scene unit had a mobile lab it could use to analyze samples on the scene. The van has since been retired, most likely to make room in the budget for handling more serious security risks.
She says her lab now probably sees fewer cases than a small town, but her duty is higher because of the status of the people she is called to protect. The conclusions she draws from her data, she notes, can be used in D.C. Superior Court and by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department.
“Making mistakes is not an option,” Wise said. “Any big mistake questions our credibility. And the credibility we have on the witness stand is all we have.”
Wise is one of only about 300 female officers on a force with more than 1,400 males. She had a baby last year while going to school for forensic science and working a daily eight-hour shift in the lab. But Wise handles the pressure with grace, even on the busiest days, which she says usually fall around the full moon. That’s when, according to Wise, “things just hit the fan.”
During the last full-moon phase, Wise analyzed a gun and magazine of bullets that had been confiscated from a car being driven into a House parking lot.
Officer Robert Brooks: Capitol Division
As a youth, Brooks used his massive frame to win what he says were friendly fights in a rough D.C. neighborhood. But when he got to high school, he learned that the smaller ones learned how to fight back—they carried guns. That is when Brooks learned how to use his build to intimidate rather than engage—a lesson that recently awarded him a letter of recognition from the chief of police.
“I fight without fighting,” Brooks said. “An image can save lives just as much as action.”
Eight years on the job, Brooks now rotates between guarding the outside door to the Senate and keeping an eye on tourists in the Capitol Visitor Center. He says he can spot trouble and stop it before making a scene or disturbing a senator. Like the other officers, Brooks said most of what he deals with is small: tourists who don’t understand they can’t bring pepper spray into the Capitol or photographers who don’t know that lying down on the floor of the Rotunda is an act of protest. But he must keep down their frustrations.
Brooks first worked as an undercover guard, wearing plain clothes in the seats of the Senate gallery where he was instructed to enforce order without imposing a militaristic presence. He once rushed to quell the Code Pink protesters when they came to oppose the war in Iraq.
He smiled when he talked about those years and said he had “the best experiences of my life. It was actually fulfilling,” compared to his previous job as a courier.
Today, Brooks is friendly with the senators he protects. He said that many joke with him on their way through the door, comparing their arm muscles to his.
Officer Jeff Core: K-9 Trainer
Maybe loyalty is common in dog lovers. The most rookie member of the K-9 unit arrived 15 years ago; Jeff Core is going on 24. In that time, the unit’s pack of dogs has gradually shifted from dogs trained to attack to those trained to detect the vapors that emit from cars carrying bombs.
In the post-September 11 world, Core needs dogs that can sniff out an explosive in a crowd, not one that intimidates tourists. Part of the training takes place at Nationals Park, when the crowds are gone and the dogs are released to roam the stands. Some dogs are specially trained to smell vapor emitting from a person’s clothes, in case a suicide bomber comes through the Capitol grounds.
Each dog is assigned to one officer for the span of its duty, and retires at the officer’s home when it is too old to perform. Just three weeks ago, Core had to put his dog of 10 years to sleep.
“It’s the hardest part of the job,” Core said, “having to have to say goodbye to your best friend.”
The unit pays for one bag of dog food per month for the retired dogs who live with their owners. In the case of death, the dogs are given proper funerals in urns purchased by the Capitol Police.
Now Core handles a spunky black lab named Owen who, like all dogs in the unit, has his name printed on the side of his officer’s patrol car.
“That’s because these dogs are more important than we are,” Core said, laughing.