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Committee Report Finds Good, Bad in Law Enforcement Response to April Gyrocopter Incident

How exactly did Douglas Hughes, a U.S. Postal Service employee, manage to fly his gyrocopter through restricted airspace in the nation’s capital and land on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol on April 15 of this year while attempting to deliver letters to Members of Congress?

A new bipartisan report released last week by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee detailed what worked and what didn’t work in the lead-up to the event, and its aftermath.

The committee collected information from the agencies involved, including the U.S. Secret Service (USSS), the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Park Police, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine how Hughes, who had been on law enforcement’s radar since 2013, was able to carry out his mission.

The committee found that the Secret Service did not conduct a follow-up interview with Hughes after an initial questioning in 2013 about his gyrocopter plot, and subsequently closed its investigation. The Capitol Police, who have jurisdiction over the Capitol Complex, relied on the incomplete Secret Service investigation and did not conduct an independent investigation of their own, the committee found.

The committee found that a lack of clear responsibility for investigating potential future unauthorized breaches of the Prohibited Area-56 airspace (the airspace around Washington, DC) before they occurred contributed to the breakdowns in communication and coordination among the Secret Service, Capitol Police, and Park Police.

The committee also found that technical limitations allowed the gyrocopter to fly through the airspace nearly undetected, and that “unlike units within Capitol Police, units within Secret Service responded inadequately to calls from a reporter about whether Mr. Hughes had permission to enter the P-56 airspace.”

In a bright spot, the committee found that the processes of the Secret Service, Capitol Police, and Park Police to notify relevant units of a security breach functioned properly the day of the incident.

The committee issued four recommendations: (1) that law enforcement agencies with protective interests in the P-56 prohibited area improve communication, coordination, and information-sharing processes between and within agencies; (2) that law enforcement agencies with protective interests in the P-56 prohibited area consider designating a lead entity in charge of investigating potential future incursions into the P-56 airspace, and report their justification for that designation to Congress; (3) that all agencies responsible for monitoring and defending the P-56 prohibited airspace continue to seek technological solutions for potential gaps in radar coverage that hindered detection of Mr. Hughes' flight; and (4) that Congress should consider increased criminal and/or civil penalties for intentional P-56 incursions in order to deter similar intentional violations in the future.

“The virtually undetected gyrocopter flight through highly restricted airspace drew attention to gaps in security, and led to serious questions about the coordination among the agencies who work to protect the Capitol, the White House, and the highly-restricted airspace above sensitive areas of Washington, DC,” said Ranking Member Carper. “This bipartisan report, generated by the Committee’s majority and the minority staffs, took a much-needed assessment of the gyrocopter incident to identify what agencies did well, both that day and in an investigation of the pilot in 2013. It also examined what needs to change in order to prevent another similar, and possibly more serious, incident from happening in the future. I hope the agencies involved will review this report, its findings, and its recommendations, especially when it comes to improving interagency coordination and communication.”

“As we watched a gyrocopter land in front of the U.S. Capitol building, many of us asked whether current security measures are functioning properly, were the right protocols followed, and whether the agencies charged with protecting this airspace acted appropriately,” said Chairman Johnson.   “While a perfect security apparatus is impossible to achieve, law enforcement agencies need to do more to help ensure people such as Mr. Hughes are not able slip through the cracks and carry out unlawful and unsafe plans, especially within or near our nation’s Capital.” 

 

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