The riots revealed the department’s operational weaknesses and double standards, critics say. Capitol Police leadership downplayed the threat of violence, despite social media posts encouraging insurrectionists to come armed for battle, leaving officers vulnerable and wholly unprepared for the mob. Yet, over the summer, a multiracial contingent of protesters demonstrating for the Black Lives Matter movement across the country were met with considerably more manpower and show of force.
Pittman’s ascent follows a familiar trajectory: She’s a Black woman tapped to lead a police department in the wake of a crisis. Over the last 12 months, Black women have taken the reins of police departments in interim and full-time roles in major cities including Louisville, New York City and Philadelphia following massive protests against police violence and systemic racism.
But history demonstrates that for them, the job is especially onerous. Police departments remain disproportionately more male and whiter than the communities they represent. Racial and ethnic minorities account for about a quarter of police forces and just one-in-eight police officers are women. Black woman officers say they face the double-prejudices of racism and sexism while on the beat.
And when they assume interim leadership positions, their tenure is often short-lived. By the end of 2020, four of the Black women appointed to top leadership positions were replaced by full-time appointees or stepped down from their posts after just a couple years, citing the personal and professional challenges of the job.
“Black women [in police leadership] have become a great punching bag,” said Sonia Pruitt, a retired police captain in Montgomery County, Md. “So rather than seeing us as ‘Wow, she’s got the ability to lead us out of this,’” she said, Black women are rarely promoted or taken seriously in leadership positions.
Pittman’s rise illustrates several dynamics that have defined this era of American politics. She represents the preeminence of Black women in leadership, from Stacey Abrams to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris; she has to manage growing distrust of law enforcement and do so against the backdrop of the increasing threat of white nationalist extremism as evidenced by the Jan. 6 riots.
“We are now being recognized more so than ever than we ever did 20 years ago, let alone 30 years ago,” said Lynda Williams, a retired Deputy Assistant Director of the U.S. Secret Service and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
Still, she said, if you’re a police chief who happens to be both Black and a woman, “you’re going against a culture that doesn’t understand you. You have to be twice as good to be considered half as good.”
All too often, qualified leaders of color, particularly Black women, are denied promotions until crisis arrives, said Yvette Gentry, interim police chief of the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department.
“We do stand up when others won’t sometimes, but the reality is we’ve been capable,” Gentry said. “We don’t get a pass at anything, really, in our careers. You just can’t skate through as a Black woman. We just don’t get to do that. So we don’t expect to do it.”
In October 2020, Gentry left retirement to take over as Louisville’s interim police chief. She inherited an embattled department rocked by a spike in homicides, the coronavirus and police killing of Breonna Taylor. She decided to take the role, she said, because she was one of few officers with an intimate knowledge of the department–she began working there in her 20s answering phones. Still, she said, friends and family were worried she was just brought in as a temporary fix to clean up long-standing problems she didn’t cause. But she didn’t see it that way.
“I didn’t come in to be the cleanup woman,” said Gentry, whose interim term ends on Tuesday. “It’s a privilege to be able to do this. And it’s a burden in itself too. But not everybody can do it.”
“Why not start at the top?”
Pittman first joined the Capitol Police in 2001, where she provided security for senators and visiting dignitaries. She earned the rank of captain in 2012, making her one of the first Black women to do so. Most recently, Pittman served as deputy chief, making her one of the top leaders on the force. Pittman did not respond to requests for an interview.
Williams, who spoke to Pittman after she was named chief, said Pittman told her she was determined to avoid a repeat of Jan. 6.
“She knows the culture, she knows what she’s dealing with,” Williams said. “She spoke confidently that she was up for the task.”
In addition to her responsibilities as acting police chief, Pittman also presides over the department’s protective and security services bureaus, which gather intel on incoming security threats. Pittman is tasked with ensuring the police department responsible for the safety and protection of the nation’s top elected officials is up for a possible second fight. That means she must bolster morale among the league of officers she leads while fixing her predecessor’s mistakes.
Already, she’s facing flak from a number of officers, who say she owns some responsibility for the lack of a coordinated response to the Jan. 6 attacks.
“I don’t think she’s qualified to be the chief of Police for the USCP,” Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the Capitol Police union, said in an email. In a press release issued the day after the Capitol insurrection, Papathanasiou called for Pittman’s resignation, as well as that of assistant chief Chad Thomas and former police Steven Sund, who later resigned.
“All three let us down on Jan. 6th, all three were working that day, and neither one of them took charge of the radio communication,” he wrote.
Another officer described last Wednesday’s events as an “epic failure” from leadership.
“[Investigators] are going after someone with a MAGA hat, going after someone who took a selfie. Well, why not start at the top?” they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “When [insurrectionists] say on social media, ‘we’re storming the Capitol on Wednesday. Bring your gun, bring your magazines, bring your gas masks.’ No pre planning? No, they just put people out there.”
Despite the controversy, Pruitt said, Pittman’s promotion is an important sign of progress for Capitol Police, which has been accused of racist practices by Black officers. Her concern, however, is how the acting chief will be treated after the most immediate crises pass.
“My hope is that she has not been chosen to be the [one] to take the fall, or, you know, to take the brunt of what’s coming as a result of the investigations about Capitol Police…because that’s known to happen.”
In addition to the day to day challenges of being a Black woman leading an overwhelmingly white and male force, Pittman also faces intense scrutiny from Congress. Following the insurrection, lawmakers like Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) criticized Capitol Police leadership for obscuring how unprepared the department was for the attack.
“We’re having a hell of a time getting information from Capitol Police leadership,” Ryan, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, which oversees Capitol Police, said in a press conference on Wednesday. “It’s a black box over there.”
But Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL.), the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, which is also responsible for Capitol Police oversight, said he has been in constant communication with Pittman. So far, he said he was optimistic about her leadership. He said she’s already made changes that suggest a more strict approach to Capitol security, from installing fencing surrounding the entire perimeter to the presence of National Guard troops throughout the Capitol complex.
“Over the next few days, it seems that the Capitol police have taken a different posture than what was allowed pre-January 6,” Davis said in an interview. Part of Pittman’s job, he added, will be to tie up loose security ends and make sure the force is prepared for a possible second terror attack, which their intelligence reports reveal is highly likely.
“It’s to find out where that disconnect was with other law enforcement agencies to make sure we know why her predecessor and her intelligence division were never notified of this threat, which would have been demanded a much more strict posture.”
It’s a lot to deliver in a short time. But, Gentry said, Black women in law enforcement are used to that kind of pressure.
“I just think we don’t get we don’t get a pass at anything really in our careers,” Gentry said. “You just can’t skate through as a Black woman. We just don’t get to do that.”
Caitlin Emma and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.