WASHINGTON — Last week’s mob attack on the U.S. Capitol starkly highlighted a longstanding local security paradox: The District of Columbia government lacks authority over much of the area within its borders.
When violent backers of President Donald Trump overran the undermanned and under-prepared Capitol Police around 1 p.m. on Jan. 6, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lacked the authority to call in reinforcements from the D.C. National Guard. That’s a responsibility given to governors, not mayors.
And as the nation’s capital, large swaths of the land and property within the District’s borders fall under the jurisdiction of federal agencies like the Capitol Police, Supreme Court Police, Secret Service and Park Police, not local officials or police.
As Washington braces for a nerve-wracking lead-up to President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration. Bowser is seeking increased security and better coordination among the multiple law enforcement agencies involved.
President Donald Trump on Monday issued an an emergency declaration for the nation’s capital. The declaration, in effect through Jan. 24, allows the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate with local authorities as needed.
The mayor had sought such a declaration after last week’s storming of the Capitol.
In the longer-term, last week’s security debacle has lent momentum and urgency to the longstanding effort for D.C. to gain direct authority over its National Guard contingent — and the parallel campaign to make it the 51st state.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, is reviving a dormant bill that would give Bowser that authority.
“It’s an absolute direct link” between the security failure and lack of local authority, she told The Associated Press on Monday. “The D.C. National Guard was ready. It was held back.”
Norton first introduced the motion in June 2020 after Trump deployed National Guard units and other federal forces on D.C. streets when protests over racial injustice and police brutality turned violent.
Currently requests for deployment of the D.C. Guard must go through the president, but the decision is delegated to the Defense Department chain of command. While the exact timeline of what went wrong on Jan. 6 is still being established, and will likely be subject to months of investigation, it’s clear that there was a serious National Guard-related delay in the midst of a deadly time-critical situation.
The first National Guard reinforcements didn’t arrive on the scene until after 5 p.m. By then officers from the Metropolitan Police Department, alongside Capitol Police, had already been fighting a series of frantic running battles with insurgents in the hallways of the building.
“Wednesday’s riot makes clear once again that D.C. statehood must become a reality and that the District must have the power to deploy the National Guard when the need is present,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a statement supporting Norton’s proposed “District of Columbia National Guard Home Rule Act.”
In the immediate aftermath of last week’s events, Bowser highlighted the irony that more than 700,000 D.C. residents “did not have a single vote in that Congress ... despite the fact that our people were putting their lives on the line to protect our democracy.”
In the short-term, Bowser, who warned in advance that the Jan. 6 protests could be large and violent, is seeking a unified federal security plan. On Saturday, Bowser wrote to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolfe, asking for increased security protocols and a coordinated process that brings together the Defense and Justice departments, Congress and the Supreme Court.
“Consistent with established protocols and practices, it is the primary responsibility of the federal government to secure federal property in these situations,” she wrote.
Citing “new threats from insurgent acts of domestic terrorists,” Bowser asked that the security period around the inauguration be extended from Monday, Jan. 11, through Jan. 24. On Monday, Wolfe abruptly resigned, but not before announcing he would move up the start of the enhanced security period to Wednesday, Jan. 13.
Bowser also called on the National Park Service to deny all demonstration permits for that period. The NPS said Monday it was shutting down public access to the Washington Monument until Jan. 24, “in response to credible threats to visitors and park resources.”
Both Bowser and Norton have called for D.C. statehood to be on the table within the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The idea remains a longshot; Republicans are deeply opposed to adding a longtime Democratic stronghold, and Democratic numbers in Congress are too low to break an expected Republican filibuster.
Bowser says having the powers of a governor would have simplified matters on Jan. 6. She had originally requested about 100 unarmed National Guard forces to help with traffic flow and guard metro stations. But any increase in the deployment or change in their mission required a whole new official request and approval process.
“We could be nimble in how we change (the deployment plan),” Bowser said, “If we find out during the course of the response that that needs to change dramatically, then I as mayor/governor would make that determination.”
But even statehood for D.C. would not have eliminated some of the security complexities of last week’s attack. The Capitol remains until the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, and the agency chief has already resigned amid accusations that he failed to recognize the severity of the threat until it was too late and requested help when the situation was already out of control.
“What wouldn’t be different as governor would my ability to put the National Guard on the Capitol steps. I wouldn’t be able to do that,” Bowser said.