A Capitol Breach
What the security community needs to take from the Capitol Hill breach
- By Steven Van Till
- Apr 01, 2021
On Jan. 6, the U.S. Capitol security perimeter was
breached and the nation watched as multiple levels of
security failed. The events were distressing and shocking
but it is important that we learn from this incident
to ensure a more secure future, not just for our legislature,
but for any building where people gather to live or work.
As the details of the insurrection continue to unfold, we are
gaining insight into where things went wrong. There was intelligence
regarding the possibility of attack, but not the proactive
preparedness needed to fortify or defend against it. With so many
pre-event warnings, why weren’t the Capitol Police and the Capitol
itself more prepared? What should have been done differently?
As security professionals, we believe that everyone has a right
to feel safe at work. The greatest responsibility for the security
community is to ensure that all employees, customers, students,
residents, and constituents feel safe under our duty of care. Secondarily,
it is important to protect the physical space and ultimately
the reputation of the people who use the space. Unfortunately
for many of us, the Capitol Hill breach shines a light
on how fragile safety can be and how quickly relatively normal
situations can change. The reality that was illuminated is that preparedness
is our best line of defense.
It seems that for the Capitol Police, hindsight is 2020. According
to an NPR article, Yogananda Pittman, acting Capitol Police
Chief said, “In light of recent events, I can unequivocally say that
vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be
made to include permanent fencing, and the availability of ready,
back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol.”
While exterior fences and additional visible police presence
are strong deterrents, security professionals know there is much
more unseen security involved in any building’s physical security
infrastructure. It seems like an obvious first step is to evaluate
the access control, video surveillance, and emergency lockdown
technology that is currently in use.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE DUTY OF CARE
Technology gives security professionals control of a building and
can enable quick action at the threat of danger. Using the right
set of technology tools can also help detect anomalies and suspicious
behaviors that trigger preemptive alerts. The fact that none
of these technologies were employed during the insurrection is
puzzling, and reiterates the need to reevaluate current technologies
and the emergency procedures that are in place.
The best offense is a good defense. Security professionals need
to be prepared for threats of all kinds, even ones that seem improbable.
Your security plan might also include barricades and
guards, like the U.S. Capitol requires, but it should definitely include
access control, video surveillance, and emergency technologies
Lines of defense. It seems like an obvious first step is to evaluate
the levels of defense you have available to intercept a potential
security threat. Preparedness is not just the presence of physical
barriers and guards at a site, it is the sum of all layers of defense.
That includes not only monitoring for potential threats and assessing
current guards and fences, but also reviewing access control
infrastructure and video surveillance capabilities to ensure
you have proactive control and eyes on site.
Security professionals must always be aware of warning signs.
Being prepared is the comprehensive steps we take to ensure safety.
Whether it’s unusual chatter on the internet, unexpected activity
around the site outside of normal patterns, or security access
points and response plans. Being prepared requires all lines of
defense, not just the fences, locks and guards.
Comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan needs to include a
coordination of all lines of defense from monitoring and evaluating
risks, establishing the right perimeter hardware needed to the
technology required to protect a space. A modern access control
plan would include requiring credentials to enter a building, video
surveillance used to spot unusual patterns, and an emergency
response plan in the event of an unplanned attack.
The right equipment. Having the right equipment for the job is
also critical. Does the hardware and software you employ in your security
plan meet the needs of what you are trying to protect? It would
seem the seat of political power in the free world would have the right
equipment for all layers of defense, but that was not the case.
Police were without helmets, strong fencing and other physical
equipment. The fact that the Capitol also has no metal detectors
prior to the security breach seems like a mis-match in having the
right response for the right situation. Assessing the requirements
of a secure location demands a balance of the correct modern
equipment to the value of what you need to protect.
WHAT’S THE BACKUP PLAN?
No security plan can be 100% foolproof. For all the fences and
deterrents, breaches still occurred. What then? The security plan
does not stop there; having evacuation plans, lockdown procedures
and backup support is also part of the comprehensive plan.
You need to plan for if your layers of plan fail, what is the fi-
nal last-resort? The burden for security teams is to think through
those scenarios, sometimes to the unthinkable, and what happens
after a breach.
ACCESS CONTROL SHOCKINGLY ABSENT
FROM THE CONVERSATION
In the coverage of the events of January 6, the discussion focused
solely on the failure of the Capitol Hill police force to stop the
advancing crowd. Politico characterized the day as, “a textbook
example of cascading mistakes of intelligence, preparation, training,
and most of all, police leadership.” Most of the video footage
seen across the news and social media was from personal cellphones.
There was no discussion of the technology that was in
place that failed that day.
Did the Capitol have video surveillance of suspicious behaviors
the day before or the morning of the breach? Are there
lockdown procedures in place at the Capitol in case of an active
shooter or other armed conflict? How are the multitudes of
staff and workers cleared into the building on a daily basis? A
review of the standard operating procedures is a place to start
and incorporating those into the physical police presence would
help form a better understanding of the security posture of the
The United States is not new to armed intruder situations
or acts of public violence. We’ve watched for years as schools,
churches and other community institutions have been breached
and violated with very tragic outcomes. Many of these cases came
without direct warning.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen a hiatus from violent attacks
due to the lockdown and lack of public gatherings. In an
article for BISNOW on Active Shooter Situations Have Paused
during the Pandemic. What Can That Teach CRE?, writer Dee
Stribling noted, “While some cities have suffered an increase in
gun violence overall, the scenarios involving one active shooter
unknown to victims have been scarce. It turns out that 2020 has
provided a rare test case that might have never happened but for
There is reason to believe there will be a return to more potential
violence in the wake of the Capitol Hill riot and as the
pandemic wanes. It is of critical importance that we start now to
rethink security in a post-pandemic world.
Preventing the next incident is the goal of all security teams
and having access control in place is key. Take for instance the
case of Rancho Tehama, where a school shooting was thwarted
by reverse evacuation and lockdown procedure.
At the sound of gunshots, the school was able to quickly react
and potentially save many lives “...always err on the side of caution
when it comes to enacting lockdown or evacuation procedure,”
said Paul Timm, PSP, vice president at Facility Engineering
Associates and a member of the ASIS School Safety and Security
Council. Taking a note from the lesson learned of the Capitol
Hill riots is a way to begin the process to be prepared for better
security in the future. A holistic approach
to physical security today needs to include a
conversation on access control technology and
how the larger scurity strategy is achieved.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Security Today.