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The Capitol Police


U.S. Capitol Police, ca. 1900

Now a highly professional force, the U.S. Capitol Police traces its origins to John Golding, the Capitol's first watchman. Appointed to his solitary post in 1801, Golding, as well as his immediate successors, had no authority to make arrests. On occasion, the lone guards relied on local marines for assistance when they confronted intruders or other difficult situations. Even with outside help, the Capitol's earliest watchmen could not adequately protect members of Congress. In order to meet this primary responsibility, the Capitol Police has steadily added officers, equipment, and expertise to its operation, usually in response to perceived threats to security and expansion to the building and grounds.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette's well-publicized visit to the Capitol revealed a need for dignitary protection, while a fire in the building's library the following year heightened concerns about public safety and unattended property. Both events influenced President John Quincy Adams' decision to establish a four-man Capitol watch force in 1827. After the president's son was beaten in the building's Rotunda one year later, the city of Washington extended police regulations to the Capitol and its grounds, making 1828 the founding year of the U.S. Capitol Police force.

The new Capitol officers did not wear uniforms and received little training in police procedure. Often serving as tour guides to the building, they needed the District of Columbia's Auxiliary Guard to help control demonstrations and disorderly conduct within their small jurisdiction. That jurisdiction expanded, however, when work began on the Capitol's House and Senate extensions in 1851. Later that same year, another fire destroyed at least 35,000 books in the library's collection, prompting Congress to authorize the hiring of additional officers, including one captain to lead the force, now called the "Capitol police" in legislative statutes.

By 1854, the Capitol Police were in uniform and armed with hickory canes, although they would not receive badges until the Civil War. In 1867, the House and Senate sergeants at arms took responsibility for the force. That change in oversight brought new uniforms, a raise in salary, and more officers, all of which helped the police provide security during Andrew Johnson's 1868 impeachment trial. Five years after the trial, the architect of the Capitol joined the sergeants at arms on the newly established Capitol Police Board. At that time, the force included one captain, three lieutenants, twenty-seven privates, and eight watchmen.

Capitol Police force, circa 1900

Acts of terrorism and other forms of violence have marked the Capitol's twentieth-century history, creating a need for a unique police force, trained to handle all types of criminals, both domestic and international. Greater security measures followed the Capitol bombings in 1915, 1971, and 1983, and were further strengthened in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationalists shot and wounded representatives from the House gallery. In between these disturbances, officers responded to countless demonstrations and a significant increase in threats to individual members of Congress.

Capitol Police, 1973

Currently, the Capitol Police force has over 1,100 officers, 200 of whom are women, and is hiring additional officers. As of 1981, police jurisdiction has encompassed the entire nation, allowing officers to accompany members of Congress on trips away from Capitol Hill. Since Congress terminated the patronage system in the Capitol Police in the early seventies, officers no longer receive their positions based on political contacts. In the intervening decades, the force has become more professional and more respected. This respect was evident in the intense public response to the shootings that took place on July 24, 1998 when a gunman killed Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson. One other officer, Sergeant Christopher Eney, died during a training exercise in 1984. On May 10, 1999, the U.S. Capitol Police Headquarters was dedicated to the three men, the only Capitol Police officers to have lost their lives in the line of duty.