After the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, agencies responsible for protecting state capitals are preparing for potential threats to their cities and Capitol buildings. PERF spoke with four agencies about how they are addressing these challenges.



Saint Paul, MN Chief Todd Axtell

It’s certainly one of the more tumultuous times I’ve experienced in my career. In Minnesota, there isn’t one agency that’s large enough to handle the largest-scale events. So we rely on our partnerships. We work in close partnership with the Minnesota State Patrol, which is in charge of the Capitol complex, as well as the Department of Natural Resources, the National Guard, and others to make sure that we keep the Capitol area and all the neighborhoods surrounding it safe.

As the state capital city, we feel the brunt of a lot of protests. Shortly after I took over as chief in Saint Paul, we had the tragic death of Philando Castile on the northern border of our city. At that time I actually had to reorganize the department and create a special operations unit that specifically dealt with the large number of protests that we have been observing since then. We have had over 300 protests in our city since early last year. We had to create an entire unit to be able to keep up with the demand for service. In an agency with just over 600 sworn, it’s really difficult to keep up with the demand. We’ve had to take our partnerships with the State Patrol and neighboring counties to the next step, to join forces and make sure we have enough staff to deal with a situation, wherever it may occur.

Chuck Wexler:  Do you have enough resources for all this?

Chief Axtell:  No, COVID and city budget priorities have taken a toll on our police budget.  As a result, we were not allowed to hire an academy in 2020.  I cannot remember the last year we didn’t hire an academy.  Our staff is running thin, the stakes have never been higher, and I worry about the toll all of this is taking on the physical and emotional health of our guardians. 

The protests we’ve observed in 2020 and the early part of 2021 have been unprecedented, with larger numbers of people showing up with long guns. That adds a new dynamic to how we approach civil disturbances and these types of protests. It adds an additional level of concern and fear when we have that number of guns in these potentially volatile circumstances.

We have open carry laws, so if you have a permit to carry, you can openly carry a handgun or long gun. It makes it very difficult for our officers, because it’s difficult to go into a large group of armed people and start asking for permits to carry from every individual. Oftentimes that conflict and confrontation are exactly what these protesters are looking for.

Our governor put it well last week in a press conference I attended with him. He said, “If you have a dispute with a neighbor over a fence and you show up to discuss it, that’s one thing. But if you show up to discuss a dispute with your neighbor with an AR slung over your shoulder, that adds a new dynamic.” To me, that represents the dynamic that occurs when people show up in masks carrying firearms openly. It’s nothing less than intimidation, in my view.

We always pay close attention to the intel we receive. But what happened January 6th in our nation’s capital is a game changer, to say the least. I never would’ve guessed anything like that would occur. The intel I received certainly didn’t indicate that would occur. It’s a new era for all of us, and we need to be as prepared as we possibly can be. That’s what we’re going to continue to do in Saint Paul and with all our partners across the state, to make sure we have adequate resources and all available intelligence so that we can get out in front of any potential large-scale acts of violence.

The last few days, our protest schedule has diminished. Many of our protests at the State Capitol have been cancelled or moved somewhere else, so we’re feeling optimistic that moving forward the mood may be changing.


Boise, ID Chief Ryan Lee

Boise presents some pretty interesting challenges. The city itself is sort of the blue bubble in a red state, so there has always been some political tension here. When managing major events, that’s compounded by this being a right-to-carry state, so if you’re 18 years old and a U.S. citizen, you have the right to carry a firearm. Plenty of people come to protest activity here while exercising their lawful Second Amendment rights.  It does complicate matters when we’re concerned about a small percentage potentially engaging in violent or tumultuous activity, or lone wolf actors who could potentially be in the crowd. That also creates a tension with the local community, which, despite it being state law, is not always understanding of why people have the right to have weapons present.

The Boise Police Department’s responsibility starts at the city curb line, so the second they’re off the State Capitol steps, they’re a challenge for us to manage. We have to work very closely with the Idaho State Patrol, which has responsibility for the Capitol grounds. And, as large a state as we are and as small an agency as they are, the State Patrol resources are spread pretty thin. If we don’t have adequate lead time to know that an event is coming, it can be a challenge for the Idaho State Patrol to pull in additional resources to bolster their strength. And pulling in the right technical and tactical resources to ensure the highest likelihood of a peaceful and civil outcome becomes a challenge as well.

I spent 20 years in the city of Portland, Oregon, and a good amount of civil disorder occurs in that city. Unfortunately, in Portland there’s a long history of extremists embedding themselves in legitimate protest activity and coopting protest activity. And there’s a history of people trying to do exactly what we saw play out at the U.S. Capitol – trying to breach buildings, trying to assault police officers. That’s been a reality of protest activity there for over a decade. Concern about extremist ideology has been part of my entire police career. I think that what happened at the U.S. Capitol punctuated why that’s a concern, even though Washington may not have had to address that concern before.

The Boise Police Department is the largest police department in the state by a pretty wide margin, and we have about 300 officers. So you can imagine some of the challenges if a demonstration becomes too large, becomes mobile, or if you have conflicting groups that want to confront each other. All those dynamics become more challenging. We need to be forward-leaning and rely on open intelligence communication with our state, local, and federal partners to do as much information-sharing as possible. And we use liaisons to reach out to folks who wish to engage in legitimate First Amendment activity, so they can help us excise and separate those who wish to engage in criminal activity. Then we can focus our limited resources on a specific aspect of that challenge.


Arkansas State Capitol Police Chief Alice Fulk

The events of January 6th were something I never thought I would ever see. It was a complete shock, especially for those of us who work in the Arkansas State Capitol. It’s the most un-American thing I’ve seen.

This summer we experienced quite a few riots, and I was an assistant chief with the Little Rock Police Department at that time. There was a very good working relationship between the Little Rock Police Department, the State Capitol Police, the State Police, and the FBI here. We are a small state and our resources are not as large as some other places, so we have to have good relationships.

It’s important to plan in advance. Little Rock PD has more resources at their disposal, but if we have a pop-up protest on a Saturday afternoon, it can be difficult for them to send us resources when they have calls for service and hadn’t planned for a protest.

I’ve been the chief here for about three-and-a-half months, and every weekend I’ve been here we’ve had armed protesters at least one of the weekend days. Sometimes it’s 100-200 people, some carrying AR-15s and in Army fatigues. Luckily we have not had a lot of counterprotesters, but the potential has always been there.

We started barricading in front of our Capitol during weekend protests, when the Capitol is not open for business. That was helpful, because car traffic wasn’t able to get that close to the Capitol. I was always concerned that someone might try to drive straight up the front lawn at the Capitol. By barricading out a bit, we were able to see who was walking up.

In Arkansas, anyone can carry a weapon, unless you’re a felon. At the State Capitol, you can carry a weapon on the grounds, but it can’t be loaded. But if you’re in the Capitol and you have an enhanced carry permit, it can. That complicates things further, and trying to check 100-200 people’s weapons would be pretty hard on a small agency trying to corral folks and keep the peace.


Colorado State Patrol Chief Matt Packard

We have jurisdiction over the State Capitol. I think the events of January 6th provided us an opportunity to bring into play the lessons we learned throughout the summer. At the end of May in Colorado, we had a very overt attempt to breach the State Capitol. The Capitol was the focal point of our protests in response to the George Floyd incident in Minnesota. So this is something we have thought about and planned for extensively. We’re benefitting from the lessons we’ve learned and partnerships we’ve needed since the end of May.

We’re in lockstep with the Denver Police Department, because none of us are big enough to handle these things on our own. We don’t do anything at the State Capitol without being attached at the hip to the Denver Police Department. The first calls I made on the afternoon of January 6th were to some of our surrounding agencies to say, “I don’t know what I’m asking for yet, but if I need help, I want to make sure you’re ready.” And, of course, that response is always there, because of those long-standing partnerships.

I think the difference about the incident in Washington, D.C. is that it forced us to look beyond our state borders for help. I’ve been on the phone with the heads of other state police agencies sharing information. I think this sharing of information from state to state has really improved and made us stronger, even though we did it in the past.

All the extremist groups that have been talked about nationally have a presence here in Colorado and have been active throughout the summer and through the election season. Our experience has been that the State Capitol has been the focus, and where you start to have issues is when opposing views are present. We most frequently see violence when those groups start to interact with each other. That’s where the risk has been.

Colorado state law allows for open carry, but local jurisdictions can pass more stringent local ordinances. The city and county of Denver do not allow open carry. So we see folks from surrounding cities or communities come for a demonstration with open carry weapons, and, in cooperation with Denver PD, we’ll do our best to make sure they know the law and give them the opportunity to voluntarily comply and take their guns back to a safe location.

There has been a change in expectations for how law enforcement responds to civil unrest since 2020. As we change our tactics, it’s important that it’s not based on the group, it’s meeting those societal expectations. I think we’re being successful in meeting that challenge.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.