The Capitol Police had a mission. Now the force is in crisis.

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The responsibilities of the Capitol Police are very different from those of regular police services. The force protects the Capitol grounds, members of Congress and staff, and it filters millions of visitors a year. Officers are expected to recognize the 535 lawmakers and avoid offending them.

The delicacy of this task was fully exposed in 1983, when a House investigation found that Capitol Police botched a drug investigation by creating “the impression that the investigation may have been closed to protect members ”- noting that, to be sure, no members had been involved.

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Ahead of last week’s televised scenes of attacked and outnumbered officers, the Capitol Constable’s job was seen as relatively secure and prestigious. The salary, starting at $ 64,000, is higher than in other departments in the Washington metro area, and the position offers a close-up view of dignitaries and heads of state. Officers sometimes make arrests for petty offenses like smoking marijuana outside Union Station, according to a report by a watchdog who complained of “a frantic mission.”

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“Typically, you don’t work on thefts, homicides, break-ins and disorderly conduct,” said Terry Gainer, who had a long career in other law enforcement before joining the Capitol Police, where he served as Chief and then later as the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms.

For decades, ensuring the security of “the People’s House” has meant facing criticism for being too intrusive or, just as often, too lax.

The department is overseen by a board of directors that includes the sergeants-at-arms from each chamber, who must answer to their respective majorities and often take politics into account, former officials said, resulting in a crippled force. who is rarely able to take unilateral action quickly.

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“When things start to unfold in an emergency, you want a leader empowered by the Sergeant-at-Arms to do what needs to be done in an emergency, without playing ‘Mother, can I'” , said Mr. Gainer. “Sometimes you had to be prepared to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”

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