The Racist History of the United States Capitol Police

James R. Jones
·4 min read
Mark Wilson/Getty
Mark Wilson/Getty

To investigate the United States Capitol Police’s failure to protect the Capitol from pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6, lawmakers must also investigate long-standing allegations of racism within its ranks.

The footage of officers taking selfies with rioters is less surprising when considered in relation to three decades of complaints by Black officers about pervasive racism within the USCP—complaints that have been largely ignored by lawmakers. Some white officers acted with impunity, even as they were being filmed, because they know that racism has long gone unchecked within their ranks.

In 1989, USCP Officer David Trader, a 60-year-old Black man with 14 years of experience on the force, claimed that he was kept off choice assignments because of his race and age. The House Office for Fair Employment Practices found that Officer Trader had been discriminated against because of his age but not because of his race. They ordered Capitol Police to pay Trader $7,448 in back compensation and $1,672 in lost overtime. Trader’s success gave other Black officers (who did not testify in support of his claims for fear of retaliation) the courage to later organize and speak out about the abuses that they also experienced.

A year later, 40 percent of the 339 Black USCP officers organized to fight for fair and equal treatment within the agency. They described a system of assignments and promotions dictated by cronyism and nepotism. They cited evidence of the limited racial inclusion amongst the top brass of Capitol Police. For example, in 1993, racial minorities made up 31 percent of the 1,100-member force but accounted for only 16 percent of top positions. Black officers sent these statistics directly to lawmakers, expressing their “deep concern” about these findings and their belief that white officers were favored for quick promotions while their careers stalled.

In 2001, over 250 current and former Black officers filed a class action complaint against Capitol Police, citing no progress in their decade-long effort for remediation. They described the USCP as a workplace that had “rabid animosity” toward racial minorities. The lawsuit declared, “With little to no positive and unbiased recruitment of African American males and females, and other minorities, into the upper (top) and lower ranks of the force, the Capitol Police will continue to be a modern day version of a 19th Century Southern Plantation in law enforcement.” (Ironically, other Black congressional workers, and even some members of Congress, have labeled the legislature itself the “last plantation.”)

In 2004, a judge dismissed the class-action lawsuit because not all of the officers completed the counseling and mediation process Congress required when it passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 that finally gave congressional employees some of the same rights that other American workers have long enjoyed.

In 2011, Black officers filed another complaint. At a news conference, Officer Lt. Frank Adams stated, “Discrimination is a still alive and well within the United Stated Capitol Police Department.” This complaint was followed by a fourth class-action lawsuit the next year.

Black officers have been unsuccessful in their lawsuits because the courts have argued that they lack the jurisdiction to rule on these matters, owing to the complicated and confusing ways Congress has applied federal workplace laws to its own employees.

In each subsequent lawsuit, the number of plaintiffs has decreased because officers have died, retired, or received individual settlements. As a result, there is no urgency to investigate claims of systemic racism within USCP and the agency continues to evade scrutiny.

In 2019, Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee, testified at a hearing in the House that women and people of color are more likely to be disciplined and to be disciplined more harshly than their fellow officers.” Despite this admission, there still has been little follow up from lawmakers, even as they moved to address racism in policing nationwide.

This inaction is not surprising. According to Demand Progress, UCSP is an agency that is rarely held accountable. The USCP has had their budget increased 322.9 percent since 1995, compared to a 30.5 percent increase in the overall legislative branch budget. USCP funding comes with little to no oversight. Internal operations are notoriously opaque, and the agency has refused to release basic information that other police departments would be required to.

It is up to Congress to finally hold USCP accountable. An important first step in this direction is new congressman Jamaal Bowman’s recently introduced legislation, the Coup Act, to establish a commission to investigate the recent attack on the Capitol and ties between white supremacists and Capitol Police. However, lawmakers must go further to dismantle systemic racism embedded in the USCP by foregrounding the career experiences of Black officers.

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