On Tuesday, a U.S. Congressional select committee kicked off its probe into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot with testimony from two Capitol police officers and two members of the D.C. police force. They each shared harrowing accounts of how they battled with the pro-Trump mob. Officer Harry Dunn described how he and other Black officers were repeatedly called the n-word as their lives were threatened. D.C. officer Michael Fanone narrated the footage from his body camera, which showed him being dragged and beaten by the crowd. He recalled how he appealed to the rioters’ humanity, telling them he had kids, as at least one shouted back “kill him with his own gun.”
The aftermath of the attack was evident on the officers’ faces. Capitol police sergeant Aquilino Gonell recalled how he suffered as he fought against the mob. D.C. officer Daniel Hodges, whose agonizing screams as he was being crushed between the mob and an entrance to the Capitol became a harrowing symbol of the day, said one rioter told him, “You will die on your knees.” Anyone who watched Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial will recognize a lot of these episodes, but allowing the officers who captured the footage to explain in their own words their trauma, and also resolve, added a haunting new layer to what we already knew.
It was a compelling—and politically effective—way to begin the hearings. But it was also a fragmented one. While these officers are undoubtedly victims who were lucky to survive the “medieval battle” against the Trump mob, the first day of testimony at times felt frustratingly calculated. Of the dozens of officers present during the insurrection, among them were many who did nothing at all, or worse, appeared to cheer on the mob. One was taking selfies and holding the door open for rioters. Another officer was suspended after video surfaced of him wearing a MAGA hat and leaving the Capitol with several others to applause. Capitol police acting Chief Yogananda Pittman announced earlier this year that 35 Capitol officers were initially under investigation, and several were suspended. Those investigations remain ongoing.
I documented the mayhem as it unfolded myself on Jan. 6. I watched as two brave Capitol officers tried to secure a door on their own, as they were overpowered by dozens of rioters. Inside, I also saw officers standing aside, calmly watching as rioters flooded the halls. Alarms blared at the entryways as they watched. I did see some skirmishes between the rioters and Capitol police, but I also saw officers talking calmy, and even offering rioters directions.
I cannot judge what might have been a life-or-death situation for many of the officers. Outnumbered and ill-equipped, it looked to me like many had decided that the Capitol was not worth dying over. I’ve documented similar mobs before, and I understand how quickly they can devour you. But many officers involved went much further than staying out of the way. While Democrats clearly understand the political value of highlighting officers who acted with valor against the rioters, the hearings must also scrutinize the other officers who were fraternizing with that same mob. It must focus on the related breakdowns that allowed the riot to go on for so long in the first place. Strategic failures to prevent the officers from being overrun led their chief to immediately resign in the aftermath; many officers didn’t have equipment because threat assessments were ignored. We deserve to know why—and what that may have had to do the many officers who, it appears, were less a force against the riot than ultimate participants in it. One Black officer at the hearing did call out his colleagues at the hearing for “catering to the rioters,” and questioned whether they would have been so gentle if the rioters were Black. But when another asserted the department would have treated Black Lives Matter protestors the same way, it went unchallenged.
The select committee has the bulk of its fact-finding work ahead of it. It is early. But the decision to highlight these four officers at the agenda-setting first hearing, as essential and worthy as their experiences are to document, privileged a favorable view of police actions—with wall-to-wall press coverage, and future hearings as yet unscheduled—over the grimmer reality of what happened that day.