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‘There’s something seriously wrong’: Local law enforcement and experts weigh in on Capitol riot

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Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s feelings about Trump supporters’ storm on the Capitol Wednesday haven’t changed since he first saw the news.

“Quite frankly, the world is watching and fledgling democracies are shaken because they know if the United States falls, democracy worldwide falls. I know that,” he said Saturday.

Some of the scenes from the insurgence have kept him up at night – a handful of officers trying to hold the line outside, fist fights and a lone officer chased up a stairway in the nation’s Capitol by a mob.

“They were overrun, just flat overrun,” Knezovich said.

Law enforcement shot and killed one woman. Another woman died after being trampled in the riots, and two other people died form unspecified medical emergencies. A Capitol police officer died after he was reportedly struck with a fire extinguisher. Around 50 Capitol police officers were injured, and police reported several pipe bombs around the Capitol.

Celebrities and world leaders, including Michelle Obama and President-elect Joe Biden, have criticized the police response. Both said if rioters had been part of the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement would have reacted differently.

“We all know that’s true,” Biden said. “And it’s unacceptable. Totally unacceptable.”

Knezovich disagrees wholeheartedly, finding the notion divisive, distracting and “ridiculous.”

“Let’s talk about this nonsense about being too gentle,” Knezovich said. “I didn’t see gentle. I saw fists being thrown, I saw batons being used, I saw teargas – so this whole narrative, quite frankly from the extreme left, is wrong. There were no kid gloves here.”

“Can you tell me how many times law enforcement was told not to do anything when Black Lives Matter and Antifa components were throwing explosives at law enforcement, trying to burn down a federal building and taking over nine city blocks in Seattle?” Knezovich asked. “There is a difference. We let Black Lives Matter and we let Antifa burn down our cities.”

Knezovich attributed the Capitol’s lack of preparation not to racism, but bureaucracy.

Lois and Stephen James, married Washington State University professors who study law enforcement and bias, thought bias disarmed police.

Lois said much research, including her own, has shown law enforcement respond with more force to Black people. She said in one of her studies, local law enforcement in a simulation reached for their gun sooner in response to Black suspects wearing the same clothes, speaking the same way and suspected of the same crimes as white suspects.

Her view of the Capitol insurgence and Black Lives Matter protests is based mostly on anecdotes from riots over the last few months. She said she’s seen a disparity “over and over” not only with police response, but public perception.

“Even the language people use – protest versus riot – there’s some race-based thing there,” she said.

Stephen James spent two decades in the British military and has worked in riot control during at least 100 protests in Ireland. During those upheavals, he said he had been hit with “acid bombs, Molotov cocktails, bricks and so on.”

Now, in addition to his research, he works as a civilian member of the Spokane Independent Investigative Response Team that analyzes officer shootings.

To Stephen, the question surrounding the attack on the Capitol is not whether bias was at play, but where it came in.

“Was it in the planning phase or the implementation phase?” Stephen asked. “Was it purely because protesters were predominantly white and historically pro-law enforcement that (police) had been lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t have all the resources available? Or was the bias at the point of contact?”

Knezovich presented a third option. He said bureaucracy, tribalism among law enforcement agencies and the siloed nature of those agencies can mean vital intel doesn’t lead to on-the-ground preparation.

Based on his 15 years with Washington State Fusion Center, the state’s intelligence agency, he said people in intelligence “don’t talk back and forth and even when they do, they blow it off. ‘Oh I hear that, but I don’t think we need to worry about it.’”

“In terms of preparedness, how can we still today, 20 years after 9/11, be this unprepared when there was definite intelligence out there on Twitter and other social media?” Knezovich asked. “Things need to be tightened up and I’m glad to see some jobs are being lost. We need to look at why our intelligence networks are so broken.”

Pentagon officials said Sunday, during a planning meeting, the Defense Department offered Capitol Police more National Guard troops, but the city turned them down because additional support ”was not needed.”

Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said that during the meetings law enforcement gave “general descriptions of some internet traffic,” but overall law enforcement “repeatedly” said “there was no indication of significant violent protests.”

Stephen said the best response to a riot is a layered one. Officers should begin with a light approach to allow for free speech and avoid instigating violence, he said. When violence does break out, that’s the time to bring in reinforcements, he said.

He said in Black Lives Matter protests this summer, many law enforcement agencies skipped the first, lighter phase of response and used “indiscriminate use of less lethal” options.

“A Black Lives Matter protest will go around a corner and be met with a wall of police in riot gear while they’re still peaceful,” Stephen said. “In this case, it took hours for police in riot gear to arrive.”

In Spokane during the May 31 Black Lives Matter protest, police in riot gear fired off rubber bullets, flash bangs and tear gas canisters, also using force to arrest protesters.

After that protest, Stephen said the Spokane Police Department took the more phased approach. During one protest in June, he remembers waiting in a building with police in riot gear who never needed to be deployed.

“We have to balance the rights of people who are exercising their constitutional freedoms with public safety,” said Julie Humphreys, spokesperson for the Spokane Police Department. “As far as what we learned from May 31, we handled it well when it became destruction of property and we haven’t had any major problems at protests following that.”

Humphreys said she wouldn’t comment much on national issues, but that local police are continuously monitoring national situations to see how they could threaten Spokane.

At the Capitol, Stephen said with more “sheer numbers” of police, the officer who shot and killed Ashli Babbitt might not have needed to fire. He said with more police, less lethal munition and tear gas can be effective, but with one against many, the officer who fired likely felt it was his last resort.

Knezovich agreed, given the footage seen so far, that the officer’s decision to pull the trigger appeared to be justified.

Video of the shooting showed a handful of officers blocking the already barricaded doorway to the Speakers Lobby, in which lawmakers, including Massachusetts Rep. James P. McGovern, stand within eyeshot of the rioters.

Ignoring police, some rioters start banging on the windows, crushing them. Less than a minute before the shooting, officers move from the doorway. Rioters bust through windows as a single officer on the other side draws his weapon.

The vandals then lift Babbitt up to help her through the window. As she crosses the threshold, the officer fires and she falls backwards into the crowd.

“Any officer in that building’s mindset is that they are there to protect the employees of the capitol,” Stephen said. “I personally don’t have an issue with that shooting, other than that it’s a tragic loss of life. Whether it meets legal thresholds, I can’t say.”

Stephen said it’s difficult to underestimate how disconcerting it might have been for the officer when other police moved away from the doorway. Shortly after the officer fires, a tactical unit comes into frame in videos, but that unit might not have been visible to the officer from his vantage point, Stephen said.

“You have to remember, there are red zones, there are lines of demarcation you will not cross,” Knezovich said.

Knezovich said police could not have allowed the mob to break through and potentially harm lawmakers or officers. Stephen pointed out Babbitt’s backpack, and that officers might have been aware of pipe bombs found at the Capitol that day.

“None of us want to live through shooting somebody. We don’t,” Knezovich said. “That’s the worst thing that could happen – to the person who gets shot, for sure, and for the person who pulls the trigger. That’s the worst thing.”

Now, Knezovich is worried about further domestic or foreign terrorism at the Capitol and potential future violence in Spokane. So is Stephen.

“I’m not advocating that police have a more robust response to every protest, but I think everyone would agree that once the nation’s Capitol is breached and we have protesters sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s desk, things have gotten out of control,” Stephen said. “If we can’t keep the people’s house safe, there’s something seriously wrong.”

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