Two U.S. Capitol Police officers are credited with saving lives when they took down a gunman, despite their own injuries, while guarding Republican lawmakers on a Virginia baseball field Tuesday morning.
That those officers, David Bailey and Crystal Griner, were on that field speaks to the evolution of the unique-to-Washington police force, one that began with a lone watchman and has played a central role in some of the most dramatic acts of violence in the nation’s capital.
“My life I give for the freedom of my country!” read the note found in Lolita Lebron’s purse after the Puerto Rican nationalist led an attack on the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 1954.
She and three fellow nationalists had walked into the building that day and were asked if they had cameras. They didn’t. They had guns.
“Viva Puerto Rico libre!” Lebron shouted before she and the others opened fire in the House chambers as members of Congress debated an immigration bill. Five congressmen were struck with bullets, including a Republican from Michigan who was hit in the chest.
In a photo that ran on newspaper fronts across the country, Capitol Police officers can be seen holding Lebron and her accomplices.
U.S. Capitol Police hold Lolita Lebron and two other Puerto Rican nationalists in custody after they opened fire from the visitors gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five lawmakers on March 1, 1954. (AP)
At that point, the U.S. Capitol Police force was about a century and a half old. When Congress moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, a single watchman named John Golding was tasked with protecting the Capitol Building, according to a historic account on the police force’s website. Then in 1827, President John Quincy Adam requested that a Capitol Police force be created, and on May 2, 1828, Congress passed an act that outlined its authority.
The result was a four-member police force consisting of a captain and three men whose jurisdiction did not extend beyond the streets bordering the Capitol Building. They worked 15-hour shifts when Congress was in session and 10-hour shifts when it wasn’t.
When the Capitol grounds later expanded in the early 1900s, so too did the force’s number. It also grew after Sept. 11, 2001, and a merger with the Library of Congress Police in 2009.
The force currently employs than 2,100 officers and civilians and has an annual budget of about $375 million, according to the force’s website.
It has lost four members in the line of duty. One was shot accidentally by a fellow officer. Another suffered a cardiac event after returning to his office from a crime scene. And two were shot to death in 1998 by a mentally unstable man.
In that incident, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who was later described as schizophrenic, was charged with killing Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson, who were both 18-year veterans of the force. Afterward, people from across the country sent mementos of support and the chief spoke months later to The Washington Post about how it pushed the department into a limelight it wasn’t used to.
“It was a little-known department nationally, and that is certainly gone,” Chief Gary Abrecht said.
U.S. Capitol Police officers pay tribute to their slain fellow officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut during a memorial service on July 7, 1998. (Frank Johnston/TWP).
The force has also gained attention for other incidents, among them: In 2006, a man with a loaded gun led police on a chase that spanned four floors before he was wrestled to the ground in a room where flags are stored. In 2009, a motorist was fatally shot about a block from the Capitol during a gunfight with police. In 2013, Secret Service and Capitol Police shot a Connecticut woman whose 1-year-old daughter was in the back seat after she drove her through a security checkpoint outside the White House and was about to reverse toward a Capitol officer.
In 1971, a protest group set off a bomb in the Capitol at night, causing no injuries but leaving about $300,000 worth of damage. A caller, according to then-U.S. Capitol Police Chief James Powell, had warned of the bomb, saying “This building will blow up in 30 minutes. You will get many calls like this, but this one is real. Evacuate the building. This is in protest of the Nixon involvement in Laos.”
Thirty-three minutes later came the blast.
Afterward, President Nixon called the bombing “a shocking act of violence.”
“We must not allow any of these incidents to close these great buildings,” Nixon is quoted as saying in a Washington Post article on March 2, 1971.
After Tuesday’s shooting, President Trump spoke about what unites those who serve in the nation’s capital — “they love our country” — and praised the two U.S. Capitol Police officers who were injured. Bailey and Griner were described by officials as being in good condition without life-threatening injuries.
“Many lives,” Trump said, “would have been lost if not for the heroic actions of the two Capitol Police officers.”
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