The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police recall getting attacked with their own riot shields on Jan. 6

In one of the latest trials for the investigation into last year’s attack, officers gave vivid testimony of their struggle to defend the Capitol.

A pro-Trump mob clashed with police inside an entrance to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, pinning an officer against a door and removing his mask in the process. (Video: Status Coup via Storyful)

There was no one moment when the mob overtook the police at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a half-dozen officers testified in D.C. federal court recently. Instead it was a gradual, inexorable collapse, culminating in an hours-long, violent standoff in a tunnel under the building.

In one of the latest trials for the investigation into last year’s attack, officers who gave vivid testimony of their struggle to defend the Capitol repeatedly said Jan. 6 was unlike the many other protests they had seen in the city. D.C. police officers arriving to the scene with the riot already underway had to fight their way through the crowd to the building. They found a “small contingent” of Capitol Police on the West Terrace “trying to hold the crowd back,” D.C. police Lt. George Donigian testified.

“There was this slow push, that was essentially constant forward movement, pushing us into the building,” he said.

Nine men are accused of joining together to battle police at that entryway, using stolen batons and riot shields, firecrackers and their own bodies. Three were found guilty last month after acknowledging the facts but reserving their right to argue over the law on appeal. Three are set to go to trial in October. And another three began a bench trial Monday — David Mehaffie, Patrick McCaughey and Tristan Stevens, who claim they were merely caught between the mob behind them and the police in front of them.

Mehaffie, McCaughey and Stevens chose to be judged not by a jury but by U.S. District Court Judge Trevor N. McFadden, a Trump appointee who has asserted that some Jan. 6 defendants are being treated too harshly compared to other protesters.

Like Donigian, D.C. Officer Chad Curtice was among several officers who recently testified against the three men, recalling police’s terrifying battle against a swarm of rioters who prosecutors say shared a common goal of getting into the Capitol to stop the congressional affirmation of President Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Curtice said that, at first, the crowd was disorganized, but then “it was like they all joined together and charged ... we ended up getting pushed all the way back” to the building.

Officers recall battling thundering mob in Jan. 6 trial of Maine man

The officers testified that they retreated into the Capitol basement and regrouped in a vestibule underneath the Rotunda. Rioters had filled the tunnel leading into the room and were breaking down the double doors.

“It’s gonna be old-school [Civil Disturbance Unit],” Commander Ramey Kyle shouted as they assembled, D.C. Officer Abdulkadir Abdi recalled. He interpreted that as, “hand to hand battle — you’re gonna hit somebody, you’re gonna get hit, it’s gonna be really hard.”

Unaware that the Capitol had already been breached from above, they believed “it was pretty much the last stand,” Abdi testified. “Officers didn’t want to let that door go. They just held that line.”

Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell — who has testified before Congress about his ordeal and has said he was hurt so badly on Jan. 6 that he faces a forced medical retirement — testified that he felt compelled to stay in the tunnel despite multiple injuries because all around him he saw only D.C. police officers fighting. “I felt like if I had left that area, they would say, ‘Capitol Police is not here, why should we defend the Capitol?’” he testified.

D.C. Police Officer Daniel Hodges testified that he was trapped between the tunnel door and a riot shield held by McCaughey. “Don’t try and use that stick on me, boy,” McCaughey can be heard saying on video as Hodges tries to repel him with a baton.

Hodges said that his senses started to dim as other rioters hit him and pulled at his gas mask, exposing his face to the chemical spray in the air. His mouth began to bleed.

“I was very vulnerable,” he said. “Staying upright was untenable.” He was able to retreat to safety behind the police line. “I was feeling relief and a little bit of embarrassment that I had to fall back so soon,” he testified. He did not suffer brain damage, but his head hurt for over a week.

McCaughey during his testimony conceded that he could have left the tunnel at any point but that, “I wouldn’t say that I was entirely responsible for hurting” Hodges.

McCaughey testified that he meant to use the shield only to protect himself and maintain his position in the tunnel, not to assault police. “The moment that I was able to hear [Hodges] scream, I immediately turned to the crowd and asked them to allow me back,” he said.

Hodges testified earlier that even if that was true, McCaughey backed off only after achieving his goal of incapacitating a police officer: “Every one less of us defending the Capitol brought them closer.”

Gonell testified that he could hear Hodges crying out in pain but was unable to help because Stevens had him pinned with another riot shield.

“All I could hear was his scream and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Gonell testified.

Stevens can be seen on video grabbing a baton, but his defense attorney emphasized that he lost control of the stick almost immediately and suggested he was only trying to arm himself for defense.

“If my memory serves correct, we the officers were the ones on duty that day, not him,” Gonell retorted.

After freeing himself, Gonell also attempted to help Rosanne Boyland, who had been brought behind the police line unconscious. Emergency medical services could not come to Capitol because of the riot; Gonell and other police tried unsuccessfully to restart her heart. She was one of four among the rioters who died that day.

“Any other day, more resources would have been called for,” Gonell said.

Mehaffie is accused of directing members of the mob to rotate themselves so they could maintain the barrage against police, telling them to “push.” He is expected to testify this week that he was trying to keep people from crushing each other.

When previous demonstrations had turned riotous, Hodges testified, it was “directionless violence, more akin to anarchy” that individuals seemed to find “cathartic.” On Jan. 6, “everyone in the crowd who was violent, and everyone else in the crowd supporting them, were of a mind, a particular objective — to make their way inside the Capitol. And they were willing to do anything to achieve that objective.”