The Capitol Police: A New Federal Force in Your State

Get informed about the Capitol Police's expansion. Understand its potential effects on civil liberties and state rights

August 1, 2023

Transparency is often touted yet seldom practiced, the U.S. Capitol Police, a federal entity cloaked in legislative immunity, is expanding its reach beyond the borders of Washington D.C. The inauguration of Capitol Police field offices in Texas, following the examples of Florida and California, is a noteworthy move. This strategy, ostensibly geared toward protecting members of Congress, engenders substantial uncertainties about jurisdiction, civil liberties, and the risk of exceeding authority.

The move to establish field offices across various states marks a substantial broadening of the U.S. Capitol Police's operational scope. This expansion was initially triggered by the events of January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol, where a riot involving an undisclosed number of federal agents, certainly more than zero, took place. As a result, the first field offices were set up in Florida and California. The recent announcement of a new office in Texas indicates a trend that could continue, with the Capitol Police exploring options for further regional offices across the country.

This expansion raises a plethora of concerns. The potential for overreach is palpable. With their unique status, the Capitol Police could operate with a degree of impunity, potentially leading to a lack of transparency and accountability. This is particularly concerning given the current climate of mistrust towards law enforcement agencies. The potential for federal overreach is not a mere theoretical concern but a reality that has manifested in various instances.

One such case, "The Kettle Falls 5". unfolded in Eastern Washington in 2015, involving a family who were medical marijuana users. Rhonda Firestack-Harvey and her husband Larry, along with their son Rolland Gregg, Rolland's wife Michelle, and a family friend named Jason Zucker, were all charged with drug crimes in 2013. The charges included growing and distributing marijuana and owning guns “in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.”

Despite complying with Washington State law, which approved medical marijuana in 1998 and allowed them to grow their own medicine, the family found themselves in the crosshairs of federal law enforcement. A Civil Air Patrol pilot spotted their grow operation, leading to a raid by nine armed state and federal officers. The officers rifled through their house, yanked pot plants from the ground, and subsequently charged the family with drug crimes.

The government claimed the family grew 100 or more plants, combining photos they found of plants from 2011 and the 74 live plants they found in 2012. This meant that, if convicted, they would face five-year mandatory minimum prison sentences. The guns would add another five years on top of that.

This case illustrates the potential for federal overreach and the blurring of boundaries between federal and state jurisdiction. Despite the family's compliance with state law, they were still subject to federal charges due to the discrepancy between state and federal laws regarding marijuana. This case also raises concerns about transparency and accountability, as the family was not allowed to mention their medical marijuana authorization during their trial.

Another issue at stake is the blurring of boundaries between federal and state jurisdiction. This could lead to conflicts and confusion over authority, further complicating an already complex law enforcement landscape. In addition, the expansion could be interpreted as an infringement on states' rights, potentially inciting discussions on constitutional grounds. 

The U.S. Capitol Police, a unique entity within the law enforcement landscape, enjoys a level of autonomy that is both intriguing and concerning. Unlike most federal agencies, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This exemption shields it from public scrutiny, potentially obscuring records of misconduct or inspector general reports from the public eye.

If entities such as the FBI, ATF, CIA, or any other government agency wish to shield certain information from freedom of information requests, they could potentially employ the Capitol Police. This could allow them to circumvent transparency norms, posing a significant threat to public oversight and potentially contributing to further erosion of trust in these institutions.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966, is a crucial law in the United States that ensures public access to records from any federal agency. It is a pivotal tool for promoting transparency and accountability in government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA, unless it falls under one of nine exemptions that protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

The FOIA has played a vital role in numerous instances, helping to shed light on governmental actions and decisions. One notable recent example was the disclosure of documents related to the U.S. government's policy on drone strikes. These documents, requested by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The New York Times through FOIA, offered insight into the legal justification for the use of drones to conduct killings in places not considered war zones, including details about collateral damage estimates.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the nation have been inundated with an unprecedented number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Parents, community members, and education advocacy groups are seeking greater transparency about how local children are educated, leading to a surge in requests for school emails, lesson plans, and other internal documents. For instance, one Virginia school district had to add half a million dollars to its budget just to process public records requests. In Minnesota’s Owatonna Public Schools, a request from a citizens’ group for all school communications and records that mentioned phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “institutional racism,” and “Whiteness”.

These are just a couple of examples demonstrating the power of the FOIA. It has been an essential instrument in keeping the public informed about the actions of their government, reinforcing the notion that an open government is a foundational element of a democratic society.

Civil liberties, the bedrock of our society, could also be at risk. The broad reach of the Capitol Police, combined with their FOIA exemption, could potentially infringe upon privacy rights, freedom of speech, and the right to protest. The lack of transparency could also shield any such infringements from public view. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, 'Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

The allocation of resources is another point of contention. Are the funds used for this expansion better spent elsewhere, particularly at a time when many advocate for the reallocation of police funding? Could local law enforcement agencies, with their intimate knowledge of their communities, be better equipped to handle these issues?

Political bias is another concern. The decision to expand could be influenced by political considerations, rather than being purely based on security needs. This could lead to a politicization of law enforcement, further deepening the divide in an already polarized nation.

Finally, this move sets a precedent for further expansion of federal law enforcement, potentially at the expense of local control. This could fundamentally alter the balance of power between federal and state law enforcement agencies.

The need to safeguard members of Congress is not just a theoretical concern. Recent incidents underscore the tangible risks they face. For instance, a man forcefully entered the office of Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., in Virginia, attacking his staff with a baseball bat. In a separate incident, former Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., was assaulted while on the campaign trail. These unsettling events highlight the pressing need for security, yet they also prompt questions about the most effective and appropriate responses.

The Capitol Police's decision to open field offices in Tampa, Fla., and San Francisco was based on the high number of threat cases originating from those states. However, the decision to include Texas and potentially the Northeast in their expansion plans could be seen as a response to political pressures rather than security needs.

The expansion of the U.S. Capitol Police into states is a complex issue, fraught with potential pitfalls. While the need to protect members of Congress is undeniable, the potential for overreach, jurisdictional conflicts, civil liberties infringements, resource misallocation, political bias, and setting a precedent for further expansion cannot be ignored. As the Capitol Police continue their expansion, these concerns must be addressed to ensure a balance between security and the preservation of our cherished freedoms. In the words of Patrick Henry, 'The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.


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