The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our training didn’t cover when to shoot at a mob storming the Capitol

Policing a riot involves walls of officers. This riot left individual officers facing an awful choice they should not have had to make.

The hearse of U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died of injuries suffered Jan. 6 when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, passes near the building on Sunday as fellow officers honor him. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Shoot/Don’t shoot. Shoot/Don’t shoot. I keep muttering that impossible choice as I watch scenes of violence inside the U.S. Capitol. I know this question was racing through the minds of the Capitol Police officers we saw surrounded by the mob on Jan. 6. Shoot/Don’t shoot. Some of them will be asking themselves that question for the rest of their lives.

They never should have been put in that position. The failure to prepare adequately for what was a very well-known and publicized protest and riot (people were openly talking about storming the Capitol with guns) made individuals out of what should have been a wall of officers.

I’m a police officer. In training, we’re taught to respond to various scenarios. There are plenty of scenarios in which a man suddenly reaches for a phone and you don’t shoot, or where a woman whirls around with an automatic weapon and you do shoot. There are no scenarios where hundreds and hundreds of angry but mostly unarmed people push up and past you. Shoot/Don’t shoot.

To understand how agonizing the decision to shoot or not shoot was in the case of the Capitol riot, it’s important to know something about police policies involving lethal force. While every department has its own specific use-of-force policies, they all revolve around the notion of an imminent deadly threat. Officers are authorized — they are compelled — to use deadly force to prevent death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others.

In every police academy, including the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, where every Capitol Police recruit spends two months before coming back for another two months of agency-specific training, there is heavy emphasis on use-of-force decisions. These involve scenarios called “judgmentals,” in which the recruit, armed with a light-emitting gun, stands in front of screens playing various scenarios. The scenarios all present the same challenge: Properly recognize the threat in front of you and shoot if appropriate.

I helped build a police force in Iraq. We refused to dress them in camo.

I watch these Capitol Police officers running through their scenarios and their training and policies and their sense of duty and their sense of self-preservation. But I am looking at a situation that was unlike anything during training in judgmentals. Yes, the threat is obvious, but is it imminent, and against whom? Where do you draw the line of “no more”? The Capitol Police are well-trained in protests and even riots on the perimeter of the complex, but this doesn’t work with small groups or isolated officers.

I was a Capitol Police officer from 2001 to 2002 and even now remember the high quality of training. We were trained in what to do if gunmen tried to storm the Capitol, but we were not trained in what to do if hundreds of people, egged on by the president of the United States, decided to rush the building and disrupt certification of the votes of the electoral college, not with an armed assault — although some had weapons — but with numbers. Huge numbers. Shoot/Don’t shoot.

It’s easy to say that if you were there, you would have shot at a certain point; it appears there was only one incident of deadly force by a police officer, remarkable when you see the full scope of what was happening. But the reality is that every instinct of those police officers was to not shoot, and for a number of reasons. Left alone or in small groups because of leaders’ lack of preparation for this event, each of these officers had to ask themselves the most horrible of questions: What is happening behind me? When do I kill 16 of the 1,000 people in front of me with the ammunition I have in my Glock 22 because they are pushing past me? (You won’t be able to reload.) What is my point of no return? I know I’m not a coward, but can I be a monster? And then this question: If I survive this, can I live with this?

Adding to the horror are reports that several officers have been suspended while their actions during the riot are investigated, acting more to encourage or enable than to protect and serve. I fear with certainty that other police departments will learn of criminal actions or conduct unbecoming by some of their officers in the riot. There is a violent extremist and often racist cancer in many parts of our society and certainly in law enforcement. It’s difficult to comprehend that while a handful of officers were taking selfies with people who had literally broken into the U.S. Capitol, many of their colleagues were facing the mob without adequate backup, cut off and continually asking themselves: Shoot/Don’t shoot. Shoot/Don’t shoot.

I’m a cop. I won’t fight a ‘war’ on crime the way I fought the war on terror.

I’m so angry at what has happened, and I’m so sad for those officers who will forever be asking these questions and more, questions we all should ask, such as: Why did people waving a “thin blue line” flag fatally injure a police officer? Why weren’t there adequate preparations? Why did the president and senior elected officials and forever-angry talking heads urge people to “fight,” to “take back their country,” and to “stop the steal,” and why, then, did everyone act surprised that so many did exactly that?

I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do know that this can never happen again. It shouldn’t have happened at all. The whole point of security planning, of layered defenses and depth, is that it never gets to the point of what we all saw at the Capitol. If your security plan relies on the heroism of individual officers, then you haven’t written a security plan. You’ve written suicide notes for other people.

What would we be talking about now if officers on the perimeter had decided to shoot because they correctly perceived the threat as imminent but not in a way that any policy would cover? How many people would have died? Would it have changed anything? We let far too much rest on the decisions of individual police officers endlessly reviewing an awful choice: Shoot/Don’t shoot.