'Elephant in the room': Police grapple with charges against officers in Jan. 6 Capitol attack

At least 19 current or former officers were charged in Jan. 6, sometimes with assaulting officers, according to a USA TODAY analysis of court records.

Bart Jansen
USA TODAY
  • At least seven current or former officers have been convicted, including Thomas Webster on Monday.
  • “Any time you see law enforcement violating the trust that’s been placed in them, it’s a concern, " said Daniel Linskey, former Boston police chief.

WASHINGTON – Off-duty police officer Thomas Robertson confronted officers defending the Capitol Jan. 6. Carrying a large wooden stick, he entered the historic building amid a mob of rioters.

Robertson, 49, of Ferrum, Virginia, was convicted at trial last month of six charges, including felonies for obstructing Congress and interfering with law enforcement.

On Monday, Thomas Webster, 56, of Goshen, New York, a Marine veteran and retired New York City police officer, was convicted of assaulting a District of Columbia police officer outside the Capitol. After rioters charged through a metal barricade, Webster was charged with swinging a flag pole at the officer and tackling him.

The convictions underscore a worrisome aspect of the insurrection, in which at least 19 current or former officers were charged, some with assaulting officers or witnessing attacks on others, according to a USA TODAY analysis of court records.

The charges threaten to further erode trust in law enforcement beyond the racial justice protests of 2020, according to law enforcement experts. The cases offer a glimpse at the threat the FBI has warned about for years: that violent extremists could infiltrate police departments to gain intelligence and sabotage authorities.

The Justice Department released a photo of Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson, two off-duty police officers with the city of Rocky Mount, Va., inside the U.S. Capitol during the riot Jan. 6.

At least six current or former officers have pleaded guilty to Jan. 6 charges, in addition to Robertson and Webster's convictions at trial.

“Any time you see law enforcement violating the trust that’s been placed in them, it’s a concern and something that needs to be addressed and something that can’t be tolerated," said Daniel Linskey, former Boston police chief and managing director at Kroll, a security management company.

The threat of extremism within the police ranks isn't new. 

"For a long time, we’ve seen extremism researchers talk about the concern that comes with infiltration, insider threats, of domestic violent extremists – white supremacists, anti-government extremists – into the ranks of law enforcement and the military," said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It’s just a matter of practicality that it is mutually exclusive to uphold the Constitution or engage in efforts to prevent the certification of an election."

Thomas Webster, a former New York City police officer, is among those arrested and charged for participating in the Capitol riot.

Police officers involved in Jan. 6 were fired or resigned, but not all 

Police officers were forced to resign or were fired in nearly all the cases related to Jan. 6.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College, said police departments typically have policies explicitly telling officers not to participate in political movements or in demonstrations. After training New York police officers in ethics for more than 20 years, she was surprised officers participated in the events.

“If I were to give the discipline, I would go with the severest departmental discipline," Haberfeld said.

The Rocky Mount Police Department fired Robertson and a fellow off-duty officer, Jacob Fracker, 30, of Rocky Mount, Virginia, after they were arrested in January 2021.

Robertson's trial came after Fracker pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and cooperated with Robertson’s prosecution.

"The right IN ONE DAY took the … U.S. Capitol," Robertson said in an Instagram post, according to court records. After learning of the charges against them, Robertson destroyed his and Fracker’s phones.

More: See who has been charged in Jan. 6

Others resigned. Mark Sami Ibrahim of Orange County, California, was an off-duty special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration when he walked around outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to court records.

Ibrahim was photographed outside the Capitol wearing his DEA badge and firearm and carrying a flag that said, "Liberty or death." After Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot by police outside the House chamber, Ibrahim was within steps of her when medics loaded her into an ambulance, according to court records. Ibrahim pleaded not guilty to charges he entered and carried a firearm on restricted grounds of the Capitol.

Not all officers who were charged were fired or forced to resign.

Chicago police officer Karol Chwiesiuk was charged with violent entry of the Capitol and making his way to the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Chwiesiuk, who wore a sweatshirt with a Chicago police logo, left the building through a broken window, according to court records.

He kept his job, assigned to desk duty, after he was arrested June 11. Chwiesiuk pleaded not guilty, and his trial has not been scheduled.

A selfie of Karol Chwiesiuk is included in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia's criminal complaint against him.

Policing the police can be a challenge

Law enforcement organizations monitor their officers for possible illegal activities such as cooperating with organized crime groups or drug cartels, according to experts. Federal agencies and larger police departments routinely vet officers after they’re hired, to monitor whether their circumstances changed.

Linskey, the former Boston chief of police, said officers were required to report if they were arrested. If they didn’t report an infraction, the cover-up could be as problematic as the behavior.

“You always have to keep your own house in order,” Linskey said.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police declined to comment for this story, and the National Association of Chiefs of Police didn't respond to a request for comment.

In some cases, police departments disciplined officers for supporting or getting near the Capitol – but didn't charge them.

Violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's Transit Police Department investigated seven officers who traveled to Washington on Jan. 6 and found none was involved in storming the Capitol.

After an internal affairs investigation and review by the Police Board of Inquiry, the agency suspended two sergeants for three days for social media posts that could be interpreted as supporting the rioters.

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz fired two officers in August 2021 after fellow officers reported  them near the Capitol during the riot, although they weren't charged. Diaz said he ensured accountability for anyone who violated the community's trust in law enforcement. 

"The two officers were found to have crossed the outdoor barriers established by the Capitol Police and were directly next to the Capitol Building," Diaz said in a statement. "It is beyond absurd to suggest that they did not know they were in an area where they should not be, amidst what was already a violent, criminal riot."

'A nightmare scenario': Extremists in police ranks spark growing concern after Capitol riot

Concerns about extremists infiltrating police departments have persisted for years. An FBI report in 2006 warned “white supremacist presence among law enforcement personnel is a concern due to the access they may possess to restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage and to elected officials or protected persons, whom they could see as potential targets for violence.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland told the Senate at his confirmation hearing last year the investigation into the insurrection is the department’s top priority. He said the country faces a “more dangerous period” than the powder keg of domestic tensions that preceded the Oklahoma City bombing.

Lewis said defining terror groups has become harder in the last 20 years as the threat changed from overseas groups such as al-Qaida, the Islamic State and Hezbollah to domestic groups advocating violence such as QAnon or Oath Keepers. Police and members of Congress have promoted anti-democratic conspiracies stemming from those groups, experts said.

“It’s home-grown terror,” Lewis said. “The threat has metastasized. It’s mainstreamed. It’s hard to separate out where does valid, free political speech end and where does violence threatened by QAnon begin.”

Tam Dinh Pham, a former Houston police officer, was charged with knowingly entering a restricted building and disorderly conduct for being inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Colleagues report police 

Police officers are typically required to report charges against them, but not all do. Several officers charged in the riot Jan. 6 were reported by fellow officers.

In Florida, Windermere Police Chief David Ogden said an officer voiced concerns to a supervisor that officer Kevin Tuck participated in the Capitol attack. Ogden said Tuck denied he had been inside the Capitol, and the initial FBI investigation relayed that Tuck wasn’t involved.

By July, the FBI told Ogden that Tuck was charged with obstructing Congress and entering a restricted building. Tuck, who pleaded not guilty, resigned. (Tuck’s son, Nathaniel, a former officer in the Apopka Police Department, was also charged.)

“It saddens all of us in the law enforcement community to see criminal charges brought forward of any misconduct involving a police officer,” Ogden said in a statement.

Tam Pham of Richmond, Texas, resigned as an 18-year Houston police officer after FBI agents interviewed him. He had deleted pictures on his phone and denied going to the Capitol, but investigators found his pictures inside the Capitol Rotunda and posing with a Trump flag. He had walked through an office suite of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Federal prosecutors said Pham was familiar with the dangers of defending against large and aggressive crowds. Pham helped keep the peace in uniform in Houston during a protest of 60,000 people June 2, 2020, in honor of George Floyd, who was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

“While serving as a police officer, Defendant had to gird himself with riot gear to be prepared for potentially violent protestors,” prosecutors said in one filing. “His decision to unlawfully enter a guarded government building is deeply troubling in light of his former service and training.”

Pham pleaded guilty in September to demonstrating in the Capitol. He was sentenced in December to 45 days in jail, fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $500 restitution.

Michael Lee Hardin, a retired Salt Lake City police officer, is among those charged with participating in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Retired officers acquiesced to violence

Federal court files are packed with descriptions of retired police officers who allegedly attacked or witnessed attacks on officers during the melee outside the Capitol.

Michael Hardin of Kaysville, Utah, who retired after 20 years as a Salt Lake City police officer and homicide detective, was photographed standing next to a Lincoln bust in the Capitol, according to court records.

“We stormed the Capitol,” Hardin said in a text message Jan. 6, according to court records. His daughter alerted authorities after he sent texts about the event.

Hardin pleaded guilty to demonstrating in the Capitol and was sentenced April 11 to 18 months of probation and ordered to pay $500 restitution.

Prosecutors had asked for a 45-day sentence because Hardin recalled seeing shattered windows as he entered the Capitol while alarms blared. He witnessed the mob enveloping and crushing police officers while breaching the Rotunda doors before making his way to the Senate gallery, prosecutors said.

“His reaction to this violence was to cheer and holler, even though he was acutely aware, based on his decades of training and experience as a police officer, of the life-threatening danger that USCP officers were in at that moment,” prosecutors said in a sentencing memo.

Who invaded the US Capitol on Jan. 6? Criminal cases shed light on offenses

Hardin’s lawyer, Scott Williams, replied that Hardin didn’t commit violence or damage property. Williams argued that Hardin’s public service shouldn’t be held against him.

“The elephant in the room of this sentencing is Mr. Hardin’s history as a police officer,” Williams said. “This history is double edged. The initial reaction may very well be to use it against him – to condemn him as someone who should clearly have known better, and who should have been particularly repelled by any acts of force against and/or disrespect for law enforcement.”

Denver police fire tear gas canisters during a protest May 30, 2020, outside the state Capitol over the death of George Floyd.

Trust in police has declined

Distrust in police “really escalated” after the Floyd murder sparked nationwide protests, Haberfeld said.

The portion of U.S. adults confident police were acting in the public's best interest declined from 78% in December 2018 to 69% in December 2021, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.

In November 2020, a Pew survey found fault lines depending on race: 32% of white people voiced a “great deal” of confidence in police compared with 18% of Hispanics, 16% of Asian Americans and 10% of Black respondents. Nine in 10 people in a Pew survey in June 2020 favored creating a federal database to track officers accused of misconduct.

In a country of 300 million people, Haberfeld said, 800,000 police officers need the confidence of their communities to serve effectively.

“You’re outnumbered,” she said. “The only way to achieve compliance is through respect and legitimacy.”

Ronald Colton McAbee, a Tennessee sheriff's deputy, was charged with assault on law enforcement officers at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Even if departments have the best training and procedures, Haberfeld said, the key is to avoid hiring bad officers.

"Until we change standards for recruitment and selection, we can come up with the best training and the best procedures – and it will not change anything as the next training and best procedures will not make a difference for the ones who do not belong on the job," Haberfeld said.