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Former Capitol Police officer on Jan. 6 says leadership ignored him

Police hold back supporters of US President Donald Trump as they gather outside the US Capitol's Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
AFP via Getty Images
Police hold back supporters of US President Donald Trump as they gather outside the US Capitol's Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.

When former U.S. Capitol Police Lt. Tarik "T.K." Johnson looked outside on January 6, 2021, he was in shock. Hundreds of people were coming towards the Capitol building. On the U.S. Capitol West Front he saw a mob attack his fellow police officers.

"I saw fighting like I'd never seen before in my entire life," Johnson says. "They were punching and they were swinging, they were throwing water bottles, they were throwing smoke bombs, gas bombs."

Johnson thought he was going to lose his life that day. A lot was assumed about Johnson based on a video of him wearing a red MAGA hat and talking to two Oath Keepers in the crowd. He was accused of sympathizing with the attackers. He got death threats.

Now, in his first broadcast interview since the Jan. 6 attack, Johnson tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel why he donned that hat and how he feels police leadership failed him and his fellow officers that day.

We reached out to former Assistant Chief Yogananda Pittman for comment, but have not heard back.

The U.S. Capitol Police provided a written statement in response to Johnson's accusation that Pittman ignored his request for guidance.

"Yogananda Pittman was one of two Assistant Chiefs who reported to then Chief Steven Sund. She was the Assistant Chief of Police for Protective and Intelligence Operations on January 6, in which her primary mission was overseeing the teams who successfully evacuated Congressional Leadership away from Capitol Grounds," the statement said. " The former employee you interviewed was part of Uniformed Operations, not Intelligence and Protective services. It is baffling why this former employee is attacking Pittman, who was not in his chain of command. For example, officials in Uniformed Operations who were inside the Capitol addressed his request to evacuate the rest of the Senate, responded to the scene, and provided direction."

The department did not provide a reason for Johnson's suspension, saying it could not discuss the specifics of personnel matters, but said, "we can confirm he was not only ["not only" underlined in the original] disciplined for wearing a political hat during the attack on the U.S. Capitol."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the broadcast version of this interview, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Interview highlights

On how and why Johnson wore a MAGA hat on January 6

So there was a call that some officers were trapped at the top of the rotunda stairs, which was outside. So I responded to their call [...] I went up there twice. Now, the first time wasn't recorded. The second time was when I had the MAGA hat and it was recorded. So I just didn't have that MAGA hat on deck, just in case I needed it for that day.

I got the hat from one of the demonstrators outside on the first attempt. And the guy just stuck the hat on my head when I was walking through the crowd. And so when he put the hat on my head, he wanted the hat back. So we were talking. So I was trying to get him to let me keep the hat. And it was another one on the other side. And he asked me, he says, "What are you talking about to him?" and I was like, "I'm trying to keep this hat, but your friend wants his hat back." Now, I don't know if they knew each other, but I just said that. So he says, "Well, you can have my hat." So I was like, "Thank you."

Why did I want the hat? I thought the hat could be a de-escalation tool and a way to protect myself, since people would be less likely to attack me if I was wearing a MAGA hat. That's why I wore the MAGA hat.

I kept it on. I was on the West Front. And I saw more violence combined that day than my entire life.

So, yes, I was scared to death [...] And so when I walked outside and looked at the steps, and I needed to go up to get those officers, I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. I looked at the steps and I was like "Oh Jesus Christ, I'm not going up there."

So I go over the radio and try to talk to the officer, and I say something to the effect, 'Try to talk your way down, be nice' because I didn't want to go up there. So then he says something to the effect that "We were just gassed and maced, so that's not our situation." So I was like "(sigh) I guess I gotta go up." So I went over the air to ask somebody for a megaphone or bullhorn, so I could go up there and get the officers myself. And I got somebody to give me a bullhorn. And that's when I made the attempt with officers first.

So when I got up there to the top of the steps, went into the big set of double doors, and I saw some officers, and I just told them to follow me out. You know, it was loud in there. So I turned around and walked back out. And then when I got back down, you know, I tried to see who I had. I didn't get anybody. So on the second attempt, because I was standing outside with the hat on at one point. And then these two guys come up to me, and one of the guys says "What do you think about what's going on out here?" And I looked at him, and I said, "This is terrible. Most of the people here, most of my co-workers, voted for Trump, and we're getting beat up. But the people watching this are laughing at us." And then he asked how could he help. And I said, "Well, I got some officers trapped at the top of the steps, and I need help getting them out." And he said "Sure."... He basically led me up the steps.

We walked up there, and once we got up to the top of the steps.... I was specific in my direction. I said "Listen, hold on to the person in front of you and we're marching out." And then at some point, a hole opened up, and we ran out of there.

On difficulties communicating with commanding officers over a Capitol Police radio channel

I only heard one commander over the radio — senior commander — and that was Assistant Chief Yogananda Pittman. So I heard her, so I said something to the effect that, "the Capitol is breached, we have hundreds of demonstrators in the building, what do you want us to do? We need some direction."

I didn't hear anything so I was thinking "Oh Jesus Christ, we're going to die here." So shortly after that, I asked for permission to evacuate the Senate before we didn't have another chance to later. I didn't get a response, so I did it anyway.

I even said it on the radio that I'll take the 550 or the 534, which are our disciplinary codes. I knew I would get in trouble, but it was more important to get those members of Congress out of the building. So I called for the evacuations of the Senate and shortly after that, the House.

On why he was suspended from U.S. Capitol Police

My last day of working was on January 6th 2021. I was out for those two days after that to get tested for COVID. Having COVID would be a big deal for me and my family, because my daughter was born prematurely, and she had respiratory issues. So I isolated in my basement. And I was out, got tested on that Friday and then I got suspended from the Capitol Police on Saturday morning. After being out, I was out approximately 17 months before returning to work, but I didn't return. I came, I processed in, put leave in for a couple of months basically, while I was looking for another job and then I processed out.

They didn't tell me initially why I was suspended. They just told me I was suspended. They came to my house Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon, and the investigator retrieved my badge. My gun was still at work. So they went to my locker and got my gun out. We filled out the paperwork for my suspension to take effect. So I was suspended on January ninth, but later I was told it was for wearing the MAGA hat, and I saw that later. I guess it was a press release or statement that Assistant Chief Yogananda Pittman put out. But yeah, I knew I was basically suspended because I was wearing the MAGA hat on January 6.

On his political views and voting decisions

I did vote for Trump in 2016. And the reason why I voted for Trump was because I believed he would be the best person for our economy. In 2020, I voted for Biden and Harris. And the reason why I voted for them is because I looked at what I believed our country needed the most. And I voted for them because I looked at our country and our country was divided. And I figured he would probably be the best person to try to unite our country. So I voted for Trump the first time, I voted for Biden and Harris the second time.

On choosing to resign from the police force

I had 17 months until full retirement. And I quit because I believed they would try to find a reason to fire me when they brought me back. Then I wouldn't get my retirement anyway, and I wouldn't leave in good standing. So that's why I quit. I didn't want to quit, but I spoke to my wife and, you know, we went back and forth for a minute, you know, because she wanted me to try to go back. And I said, "If I go back and, you know, you're right, then it's all good. You know, they're going to put me in some hole for the next 17 months."

But I say, "If you're wrong, then I lose my retirement and then I won't get another federal job. Or it's very difficult for me to get another federal job after you've been fired with cause from the federal government." So I said, "Let me leave now in good standing so I can get another federal job," which I did... All I wanted was my good standing card and my good standing letter.

On former colleagues receiving a Congressional Gold Medal while Johnson did not

It stung me pretty badly when I was told I do not qualify for the medal they awarded the officers for their work on and everything they went through on January 6.

I was told that even though I was there, I basically don't qualify for it because I left the department via a transfer to another federal agency... But luckily, because another one of my coworkers, when I told him about that, he offered me his. And it almost made me cry. And he says, "I know how you feel," he says, "but I'm giving you my medal." And it almost, you know, I'm feeling it right now, you know, because he said that. So I'll pick the medal up from him this week. But I say all that to say when they told me I didn't qualify for the medal, that stung because I wanted the medal...

I could care less about being acknowledged, because even after January 6, after I did all that, I went back to my desk and thought the day was over until another event happened. And I don't know if we have time to get into that. But, you know, it wasn't that I wanted to be acknowledged. I just wanted the medal, you know, so I can have that. Because the only thing I look at now and the piece of memorabilia I have from January 6 was the MAGA hat. And I look at that MAGA hat sometimes — I looked at the hat this morning actually. And it's funny how I still have the hat. But sometimes I look at it and say: This hat saved my life. And sometimes I look at it and say: This hat got me suspended for 17 months. So I go back and forth with the hat. But yeah, that hat is the only thing I have that was part of me on that day that I'll never forget.

This is something that I can also give to my daughter to say, "Hey, sweetheart. This is what your daddy got for his work on January 6." And, you know, I wanted to give that to her at some point, you know? But now I still do. I will have one to give to her. But I was also told I could purchase one myself from the U.S. Mint. But it didn't matter, because my friend offered me his.

On his new life after leaving the Capitol Police

I'm doing well now. I realized that when I left the Capitol Police, like I said, it was scary. But I knew I had to do it. And now I work two jobs to try to make ends meet. Now, I work full time hours every day, seven days a week. I'm scheduled for full time hours, seven days a week. The only day off I'll get is if I take the day off, like I did for this interview, or if there's a holiday.

But by and large, I work seven days a week, at least 8 hours, sometimes 12 or even more, so I can make ends meet. And I'm still not even close to what I was making when I was a commander of the Capitol Police. But at the end of the day, everything I did on January 6, even knowing what I'm going through now financially, I would do again and I will be okay. I'm going to keep working, and I'm the type of guy that working seven days a week is nothing for me. If we had eight days in a week, I would work eight. So I'm going to make sure my family is taken care of.

The interview was edited for air by Lindsay Totty and produced by Ziad Buchh. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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