'It Was Perplexing': ASU Policing Expert On Police's Response To Capitol Protesters

Published: Thursday, January 7, 2021 - 12:37pm
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LAUREN GILGER: As the chaos in Washington played out yesterday, questions quickly emerged about the law enforcement response to what initially started as a protest and quickly became what's being called an act of domestic terrorism. How is it possible that the Capitol had been breached so quickly? Why wasn't the National Guard there to assist earlier? There was a video taken of officers posing for selfies with protester — pro-Trump extremists and officers moving barricades for them to get through. Many compared this response to the police response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests over the summer. Four people died in the events and more were wounded, including 14 officers — two of whom remained hospitalized late last night due to their injuries. But there were few arrests made compared to the number of people who clearly stormed the Capitol yesterday, damaging government property and attacking police. For more on the law enforcement response to all of this, I spoke with one of ASU's leading experts on police behavior and use of force, Bill Terrill, beginning with his reaction as he watched the events unfold.

BILL TERRILL: Well, certainly the Capitol Police and the authorities there badly miscalculated what the potential threat could be, and so they were unprepared, obviously, and they got behind, behind the eight ball, so to speak, and really, the rest of the response was trying to play catch up. And, you know, from a policing standpoint, it was perplexing. And I think most policing experts would view it this way as well. Because, you know, it certainly was a reasonable expectation, given the lead up to the event, that there could be the potential for a protest that could turn into what we saw. And so it was, it was somewhat striking that the, the limited police presence and the lack of preparation for it.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. Why do you think, I mean, the Capitol being breached seems like such an unthinkable thing, right? But, but it didn't seem to be all that difficult. How do you think it was possible it wasn't that difficult? Is it just a manpower issue?

TERRILL: Yeah, it was a personnel issue for sure. You know, what should have been, you know, multiple lines of defense, starting with a further out perimeter. And so even from the, from the start, the perimeter was, was too close from a tactical perspective. And so, you know what — I really, what I think happened, you know, what I speculate in these early moments yet of just trying to digest this, the criticism from the riots in the summer, I think played heavily into them, not wanting to have a show of force and have the worry of excessive force. But the exact opposite happened in this case. We usually look at the police because of them using too much force. In this case, it's almost the opposite of that where, you know, there wasn't enough of, of, of presence from a coercive standpoint.

GILGER: Let's talk more about that. I mean, we saw, you know, minimal arrests even of those who breached the Capitol building compared with how many people clearly did. You saw videos of some officers taking selfies with rioters, moving barricades. What do you make of those sorts of examples of this? I mean, do you think there are just some sympathizers and these are outliers in the police force there?

TERRILL: Well, I hope it was, it was outliers. Certainly despicable acts in that particular case. You know, I hope it's outliers. I really think that, you know, once the breach was made, it was too late at that point. I mean, if you saw images of single officers trying to hold back several citizens, as trying — you know, that were already in there — I mean, it was an impossible task at that point because they were behind. So there really wasn't much tactically that could be done. If the officers would have engaged in that particular case, they would have been quickly overrun. And so I think once, once that failure occurred, they were almost boxed in to how they could respond.

GILGER: People obviously are saying that if these had been Black Lives Matter protesters or people of color in general, there would have been a body count. There would have been a very different response. It certainly looked different when you'd watch the BLM protests happen over the summer — the police response to those. Why don't you think we saw more use of force? Do you think it was just the way it was approached from the beginning?

TERRILL: I think that was, I — you know, my speculation, and that's all it can be at this point, is that that criticism of how it was handled in the summer of Black Lives Matter movement, they were overly cautious in how they prepared for this. Of course, the more cynical or sinister potential is that, you know, that there's a racial aspect of it, that, you know, there were more sympathizers there and they didn't view this, quote unquote, "protesting crowd" that would turn violent. And, and obviously it did. I mean, they weren't protesters. It turned into domestic terrorism. You know, it was violence for the purpose of political or religious reasons, in this case, political. And so it certainly crossed that line from peaceful protests to domestic terrorism.

GILGER: When something like that happens, I mean, what should the police response be after that? Like, once they had already sort of lost control of the situation, what do you make of the police response afterward, when they brought in the National Guard, FBI officers, etc.?

TERRILL: Yeah, well, that's, that, they finally caught up at that point, right? Because that, that should have been on, on standby and ready to go as soon as it occurred. It wasn't. And so once, once it all occurred, you know, they really didn't have many tactical choices. I think the real key now is how do they follow up with this? You know, certainly a few, a few citations for trespassing isn't going to cut it — it's domestic terrorism — they need to, they need to do a follow up and identify as many of the, the folks that, you know, breached and engage in this behavior and arrest them and, you know, bring it to justice.

GILGER: All right. That is Bill Terrill, associate dean in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU. Bill, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

TERRILL: Thank you. 

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