Vehicle attack raises new questions about US Capitol security

Sensitivities high amid heightened security following deadly January 6 Capitol attack by Trump supporters.

Members of the National Guard in riot gear responded after a car crashed into a barrier at the US Capitol killing one police officer and injuring another in Washington, DC [Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

New questions are being raised about security measures around the United States Congress after a vehicular assault on a security checkpoint killed one Capitol Police officer, injured another and ended with the driver of the car shot dead.

A couple of minutes after 1pm local time (17:00 GMT) on Friday a man drove a car into a main driveway of the US Capitol plaza, striking two police officers before crashing into a barricade. The man emerged from his car brandishing a knife and lunged at the officers before being shot, police officials said.

Officer William “Billy” Evans succumbed to his injuries, according to acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman. The second officer remained hospitalised.

“We are devastated to share the sad news that one of our officers involved in this afternoon’s incident passed away,” the Capitol Police said in a statement. Evans, a Capitol Police officer since 2003, died at a hospital from injuries sustained in the attack.

Most of the 535 members of Congress were away on recess when the attack happened. National Guard soldiers and police with riot shields responded to the incident which caused a two-hour lockdown for thousands of congressional staff working at the Capitol complex.

US Capitol Police officers stand near a car that crashed into a barrier on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 2, 2021 [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

“I personally believe that the Capitol Police need reinforcements right away and we should do everything in our powers to add the personnel that they require,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi in an interview with the MSNBC news outlet.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement there would be “a swift and comprehensive investigation into this heinous attack” and praised the “heroism” of the police officers.

Sensitivities are high following the January 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump. Protesters seeking to disrupt Congress’s certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election overran police checkpoints and invaded the Capitol building.

Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick officer died and a female protester was shot by a police officer. Three other protesters died from health incidents during the riot and two Capitol Police officers later committed suicide.

Congress called in the National Guard to defend the Capitol grounds and erected a non-scalable fence topped with razor wire around the building which in normal times is open to the public and visited by thousands of tourists.

Authorities had begun to remove the fencing in recent days as congressional leaders sought to return a sense of normalcy to Congress. It was only two weeks ago that public traffic was allowed again on Constitution Avenue, the street where Friday’s attack occurred.

“As far as the perimeter fencing and other issues … we’re going to have to look at it more deliberately and make sure that we can prevent incidents such as these,” said Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee.

A task force report released on March 8 concluded the US Capitol Police were poorly prepared for the January 6 attack, while recommending sweeping security upgrades and the creation of a quick-reaction force in the US capital.

Police and National Guard officers stand watch in streets surrounding the US Capitol following a vehicular attack that killed one officer and wounded another on April 2, 2021 [Al Drago/Reuters]

Recently, Republicans had urged Democrats who control the top decision-making posts in Congress to reopen the Capitol complex to the public.

“Without credible security threats, we can no longer justify keeping this institution closed off to the American people whose tax dollars not only fund Congress, but as citizens also deserve access to their legislative chambers,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on March 26.

Speaker Pelosi on March 26 named Army Major General William Walker to be the new House sergeant-at-arms, a top administrative position for security at the Capitol

Pittman in earlier testimony to a congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack apologised for “failings” by Capitol Police. A former House sergeant at arms and former Capitol Police chief have given conflicting accounts of preparations they took before January 6.

While the January 6 mob attack was unprecedented there have been several deadly incidents like Friday’s attack in the past that resulted in adjustments to police postures.

In 2013, a Black woman was shot and killed by law enforcement at the Capitol after a high-speed car chase from the White House where she had rammed a Secret Service barricade.

Police increased manpower at Capitol security checkpoints in 1998 after two officers were shot and killed inside the Capitol building by an armed assailant.

Security procedures and vehicle checkpoints were substantially increased at federal buildings throughout Washington, DC, after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks.

Source: Al Jazeera