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Ask Civics 101: Who Are the United States Capitol Police?

Sara Plourde/NHPR

Today's Civics 101 question: Who are the United States Capitol Police?

Listen to this short episode, or read on for the answer. 

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With the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol Building, the United States Capitol Police (USCP) have been thrust into the spotlight. That leaves some people wondering: who are the United States Capitol Police? How is this agency different from the Secret Service?

The Capitol Police are a security force/police department hybrid. They're part of the legislative branch and their stated mission is to protect Congress. But they are more than bodyguards for the 535 members of Congress. They also protect Congressional staff and the families of Congress members, anywhere in the United States, plus the millions of visitors a year the U.S. Capitol receives.

They protect the buildings and grounds of the United States Capitol complex, which is big. The campus covers over 274 acres with monuments, House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, Supreme Court and more - including the roadways in and around the complex, which means they also enforce traffic regulations.

When the Capitol building first opened in 1800, a lone watchman, John Golding, was hired to protect it but the job was too big for John alone. Security incidents kept happening. The tipping point was the assault of President John Quincy Adams' son under the Capitol Rotunda. His nose was pulled and he was slapped - an invitation to duel. In response, his father founded the force as the United States Capitol Watchmen in 1828. Four watchmen were given full law enforcement authority.

From those four officers, the USCP has grown to its current size of more than 2,300 officers and employees. The department is overseen by a board that includes the sergeants at arms from each chamber of Congress. Their yearly budget is nearly half a billion dollars, making them one of the most well-funded police departments in America; they even have their own intelligence unit.

But that hasn't prevented all security incidents. There have been assaults, bombings, and shootings on the Capitol grounds. Six officers have died directly in the line of duty, including two killed in a 1998 attack by gunmen and two by injuries sustained during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The former were given the rare honor of lying in state under the Capitol Rotunda.

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Jacqui Fulton is, in her own words, "podcast and public radio’s biggest fan.” She even built a recording studio in her closet.
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