On Wednesday, January 6, a mob supporting President Donald Trump breached the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., attempting to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. The protestors-turned-infiltrators shoved aside the barricades positioned at the bottom of the west-facing steps of the Capitol and surged toward one of the country’s most famous—and seemingly secure—federal buildings.
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But those barricades weren’t the only lackluster security detail that allowed the historic breach of the Capitol, which left five people dead, including one police officer. Experts say the sudden collapse of security was a pre-planning failure and the result of a lack of building fortification.
On the eve of President-elect Joe Biden being sworn into office on a platform on the Capitol’s West Front, these experts reveal what needs to be done to prevent another catastrophe from ever happening at the Capitol again.
Capitol police didn’t know what was coming.
Assess crowd size, potential weapons, and risk of violence.
Rioters first gathered in the areas west of the Capitol after taking part in a rally at the nearby White House Ellipse, part of the 58-acre Capitol Grounds park, before approaching the barricades—and the Capitol police manning them—around 12:40 p.m. The mob of an estimated 8,000 people quickly overpowered the outnumbered police force with a reported 1,400 officers on duty that day, as rioters ripped away the barricades to open access to the stairs at 1:10 p.m.
Ken George, a veteran in the security industry and president of Caprock Consulting Group, calls the effort a “massive operational failure” that showed a clear lack of preparation. “The police were so outnumbered they just got overrun,” he says. “They needed to have an order of magnitude more bodies on site. That was the first thing.”
Planning was likely based on prior scenarios, but the January 6 event was unprecedented. Steven Sund, Capitol Police chief, admitted after the riots that police believed it was going to be a peaceful protest. That simply wasn’t the case, and without an expectation of violence, officers were ill-equipped.
“The level of security would have had to have stepped up to a military model”—one that included a larger presence, including the National Guard, and more domineering weapons, says Les Nichols, a certified protection professional and licensed architect.
In the days leading up to January 6, Capitol Police and intelligence agency officials would have been gathering information, says Alex del Carmen, associate dean and professor in the School of Criminology at Tarleton State University, who has trained agents for the FBI and Homeland Security.
That typically entails using social media and other forms to estimate the size of the crowd, where the people were coming from, the nature of their online discussions, and even an expectation of what types of weapons would be on hand. With that information alone, del Carmen says the response should have been different.
With the knowledge of so many people coming into the city for a protest, you need to alter officer schedules, cancel days off, and maybe move barriers farther out, says Stacey Porter, a consultant who previously provided security at the White House for 8 years. He says the Capitol Police didn’t give themselves enough time to call in additional agencies—of which there are plenty in Washington, D.C.—and weren’t quick enough to ask for help, although security officials have since disputed the exact timeline of the requests for backup.
A breach at the barriers.
Erect stronger, taller, spike-laden barricades.
The moment the rioters penetrated the outer layer of security of the barriers at the steps, it changed everything, George says.
Security officials work to set up rings, or layers of defense, surrounding a site they want to protect so if an outer layer is breached, you have time during the attack to fall back and regroup to protect the next layer. The more layers you have pushing from the target, the more time you have to gain reinforcements or evacuate personnel. With no fencing around the Capitol on January 6, the outermost perimeter consisted of barricades at the bottom of the steps.
Once the rioters breached those barricades, the Capitol police—a highly staffed entity with over 2,300 officers and staff for such a relatively small area—never effectively set up a second layer of defense, says George. There simply weren’t enough officers to adequately handle any point of the insurgence, he says.
The barricades set up around the Capitol, and most buildings in the U.S., are meant to keep explosive-laden vehicles away from buildings and direct crowds. They do little to stop mobs. The movable steel fence that’s no more than 3.5 feet tall proves effective only for a peaceful gathering respecting authority, Nichols says.
In the wake of the riots, security officials have put up a non-scalable, 7-foot metal fence outside of the Capitol for at least 30 days. When large gatherings are expected, Porter says, barriers need to push farther out, and additional fencing needs to be brought in.
To stop a violent group, the barricades also need defensive additions, like spikes, which are usually set atop more permanent placements such as concrete blocks, or as barbed wire atop taller fencing. The police presence also needs to have more of a military feel, with more officers and larger weapons, to act both as a practical and visual deterrent to unruly behavior.
With so few officers in place, Nichols says the officers had no choice but to give up the barricades and fall back, as many rioters took the fencing with them. “I think the nature of what happened changed very quickly and they weren’t prepared for that,” he says.
A leaky building design.
Plug up the holes.
Like most of the major buildings in Washington, D.C., the Capitol was designed to invite the public to gather, with vistas and malls. But this 1800s design also makes it leaky, says James Timberlake, founder of the architecture firm KieranTimberlake and designer of the U.S. Embassy in London.
“There are lots of former entrances, exit ways, light portals, and windows that create opportunities for breaches,” he says. “Once the mob got to the edges of this building, there were lots of pathways in.” (The exact number is unknown.)
Rioters streamed up the front steps, gaining access to porches and overlooks before easily smashing windows and entering the building at 2:15 p.m. Meanwhile, Capitol police continued to retreat and disengage with the mob at most points.
The rioters quickly focused on glass. “I was shocked someone could go up to one of the windows of the building and just break it out and get in,” George says. “I’m shocked the Capitol building hasn’t been hardened over the years so that a mob of untrained people, with maybe hand tools and items they picked up off the ground, can’t be kept out indefinitely.”
The glass needs a major upgrade, the experts say—even a small improvement to include any number of films or coatings that can withstand smashing, spider-webbing, or breaking only in small holes. Experts believe the current glass, which appeared to be more residential-grade and likely around 1/8th of an inch thick, had none of these defenses. By contrast, ballistic-grade glass, a much heavier form that can stretch from 1.25 to 2.5 inches thick, can withstand the impact of projectiles, even from assault rifles.
The hardening of the building can happen with more than just glass. The façade can gain sharp, nail-like spikes; these will be unrecognizable to most, but adding them to the same recesses rioters used to gain handholds will make climbing difficult. Plus, ballistic-level doors using laminated glass, fiberglass, or steel for the outside, as well as different points inside, can help secure areas, Porter says.
Timberlake wants to see the Capitol secured from the inside, so you don’t change the design, but you plug the holes. He suggests using metal grills that can secure windows by dropping into place when needed and gates that can close down stairways and corridors at the push of a button.
“Let them break a window, let them try to bust a door, but on the inside, have a gate or shutter that could be pulled down,” he says.
The Capitol was constructed centuries before the current practice of using environmental design, which limits points of entry, fortifies walls by making them non-scalable, and raises windows so they aren’t easily accessible from the outside. But it took only captured police shields and chairs to break windows and increase the points of entry. It was as if, as Nichols says, no one realized people could walk up with a brick to smash glass and gain entry.
Along with the points of entry, the building’s neoclassical design, which puts an emphasis on grand scales (think steps, exaggerated walls, columns, and porches) and a high-level of detail (here’s where the footholds came in the walls), made it easy for the protestors to gain access to additional areas. Meanwhile, the rustication design—the act of cutting reveals into the stone to create a more solid appearance—helped people scale the walls with ideal handholds.
Nichols also suggests storing bollards or gates underground and pneumatically raising them on the grounds as needed, helping to maintain the appearance of the Capitol while adding an extra layer of security.
Scant security inside.
Ready the reinforcements.
As the mob also entered the Capitol from the east, others were storming toward the Senate Chamber on the north side of the building and the House Chamber on the south side, smashing their way forward. It was there that a stand-off of a barricaded door led to the shooting death of one protestor.
Once inside, the rioters essentially had free rein. They were entering from too many different points, and the officers were outnumbered as there wasn’t an additional layer of security—like thousands of additional Capitol Police or National Guard troops, who could have been ready to defend the premises—drawn up in the building.
The morning’s briefing should have included all the threats and possibilities, a clear outline of what officers should and shouldn’t do, and a briefing of just how long until the National Guard—which should’ve been on standby—would take to respond, says del Carmen.
It appears the police decided to simply let protestors roam the halls instead of getting into a shootout in the halls of Congress. “I think that is probably the calculation they made,” George says. His assessment: “They disengaged and didn’t try to protect anything except the Senate and House chambers until they got [lawmakers] evacuated out the tunnel system.”
It took four hours, reinforcements, and tear gas to eventually rid the building of insurgents. The storming of the Capitol was a wake-up call that came too late, experts say. Now is the time to prepare for the next possible attack.
“We haven’t taken domestic-generated violence seriously in our country,” Timberlake says. “This is going to change the security and design considerations going forward.”
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