The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Jan. 6 had been a movie, the cops would’ve been the heroes

Police clear the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this column misstated Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood's interaction with rioters at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Liebengood encountered rioters but did not physically battle them. The column has been corrected.

Compared with the destruction of the Capitol by the British in 1814, the 2021 insurrection barely left a scratch.

No member of Congress was harmed. The white dome, the marble halls still stand. And hours after the attack, lawmakers reassembled to certify the election that ushered a new president into the White House.

If this had been a blockbuster movie, the music would’ve swelled, wisps of smoke would’ve parted and, emerging from the rubble, the band of dirty, bloody officers injured while facing down a thousands-strong angry mob would emerge as heroes. Mission accomplished.

But one year later, Jan. 6 is a political melee of subpoenas, hearings, arguments and whitewashing while the heroes of that day remain profoundly shook. They are understaffed, overworked and — largely — uncured. For at least 140 police officers who were crushed, beaten, shocked with stun guns, slashed, shoved, dragged and stomped defending the nation’s Capitol from insurrectionists a year ago, one of America’s darkest days didn’t end when the sun set.

Jan. 6 was horrible for them. So was Jan. 7 and Jan. 12 and April 17 and Nov. 4 and any other day they couldn’t shake the memories. Many are depressed, anxious, angry and sad. Four took their own lives.

“They were left hanging there with very little in the way of resources,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), whose constituent Howard Liebengood was one of the Capitol Police officers who protected the Capitol. He took his own life three days later.

The insurrectionists went in there trying to “ransack the parliamentarian’s office. And they didn’t succeed,” Wexton said.

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That victory came at a cost. Capitol Police Capt. Carneysha C. Mendoza, went from having a meal with her 10-year-old that day to walking into a hellscape.

“Of the multitude of events I’ve worked in my nearly 19-year career on the department, this was by far the worst of the worst,” she said in her congressional testimony later that year. “We could have had 10 times the amount of people working with us and I still believe the battle would have been just as devastating.”

When I reached out to her, she said she doesn’t want to relive the day much: “I spend time writing and I spend time lifting weights, both of which are helpful for my mental health.”

Other officers were emotional and raw in their testimonies to lawmakers about the aftermath.

At least a dozen officers from the Capitol Police and D.C. police have filed lawsuits against former president Donald Trump that described not only the attacks — being beaten with flagpoles, being surrounded and trapped in a tunnel, getting so much chemical spray blasted in their faces that one kept vomiting on himself — but also the lasting trauma of working in the Capitol.

D.C. Officer Bobby Tabron “suffers from insomnia, and when he can sleep, he frequently has nightmares and night terrors in which he is fighting for his life at what seemed like the end of the world.”

Capitol Police Officer Marcus Moore “is haunted by the memory of being attacked, and of the sensory impacts — most particularly the explosions of flashbangs and other devices, as well as the sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes of the attack remain close to the surface.”

Most of the officers who survived had to suit up and head right back out for work the next day. And again. And again.

I was there that day, too. I was jittery for days after being crushed in the crowd. But I got to go home and write. The officers had to return to the scene of their worst nightmare every time they clocked in. And they did that not while the nation was hailing their successful defense of democracy but as it was wallowing in the failures of that day.

They should’ve seen it coming. The streets were packed with trucks waving Trump flags. Hotels were booked solid. Social media was on fire with the mob’s plans to descend on D.C. Trump promised everyone that it was going to be “wild.” Yet, only 195 officers from the 2,000-strong Capitol Police force were on duty around the main building. The riot fencing that surrounded the White House during the Black Lives Matter protests was nowhere near the Capitol, which was protected by short and simple bike-rack barricades.

“They’ve taken such a professional drubbing, that they weren’t ready, they weren’t prepared,” said Terrance W. Gainer, a former chief of the Capitol Police and a retired Senate sergeant-at-arms. He’s been talking to some of the officers who were there that day. “I’ve heard a lot of them say, ‘I feel like I disappointed everybody.’”

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The suicides of Liebengood and D.C. police officers Jeffrey Smith, Gunther Hashida and Kyle DeFreytag — who were all at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — have underscored the despair. That their deaths have yet to be designated as line-of-duty deaths adds to the dismissal of their trauma.

“You have a heart attack while on duty? It’s paid for, 100 percent. No issue. You break your leg on duty? Paid for 100 percent,” said Steve Hough, a law enforcement officer who helps run Blue H.E.L.P., a police mental health advocacy group. “But when someone breaks their mind? Or injures their mind while in the throes of doing their duty? They say, ‘Nope.’”

The Attack: A Washington Post investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection

Hough’s group works to break the stigma of mental health support. He’s found the best tool for that is peer group counseling, in which officers can relate to one another and know they aren’t alone in their trauma.

“My generation, we grew up in the age of ‘we don’t talk about that stuff,’” Hough said.

Gainer said it was the “suck it up” culture.

But both believe the coming generation of law enforcement officers will be more open to treating mental health as health.

Wexton stays in touch with Liebengood’s widow, Serena. She thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with him, Wexton said. But instead, she and Liebengood’s family advocated for mental health support for the officers he left behind.

The $4.3 million Howard C. “Howie” Liebengood Center for Wellness on the Capitol campus will open soon, staffed with six therapists and spaces for group and peer counseling. The legislation that funded the center also gives the Capitol Police department, which lost at least 130 officers who simply quit after the riot, $31 million to help with staffing, training and retention.

Those benefits will help. But what will also be necessary — and won’t cost a dime — is for the lawmakers who still deny that this was an insurrection, who still want to whitewash the attack, who protect the organizers of Jan. 6 and support the jailed rioters to stop. To stop the nonsense and acknowledge who the real heroes were that day.

Anything else is seriously messing with the officers’ minds. And they’ve all had enough of that.