A veteran officer with the U.S. Capitol Police was arrested Friday for allegedly encouraging a suspect in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to hide evidence of their involvement in the attack. He is facing two counts of obstruction of justice, and has been placed on administrative leave while the case is ongoing.
The officer, Michael Angelo Riley, has worked for the Capitol Police for nearly 25 years, the department told NPR, and most recently served as a technician with the K-9 unit.
During the Jan. 6 siege, Riley was not inside the Capitol building, court papers state, but was instead responding to reports of explosives by the headquarters for the Democratic and Republican parties.
The day after the attack, according to an indictment filed in federal court, Riley sent a message to one of his Facebook friends, who had posted selfie-style photos from inside the Capitol building and discussed their participation in the riot.
"Im [sic] a capitol police officer who agrees with your political stance," Riley allegedly wrote to the suspect, whom the indictment does not name. "Take down the part about being in the building they are currently investigating and everyone who was in the building is going to [be] charged. Just looking out!"
The suspect then allegedly sent multiple videos of themself in and around the Capitol building to Riley. There is no indication in the indictment that Riley shared any of this information with investigators from his own department or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rather, court papers state, Riley responded to the suspect, "Just wanted to give you a heads up...Im [sic] glad you got out of there unscathed. We had over 50 officers hurt, some pretty bad." (In fact, more than 150 officers were injured in the Capitol riot.)
Over the course of the next several days, Riley and the suspect allegedly sent dozens of messages back and forth and spoke on the phone at least once. In one message cited in the indictment, Riley instructed the suspect to, "get off of social media."
The indictment alleges that the suspect was arrested on Jan. 19, and, on Jan. 20, wrote to Riley that the FBI was "very curious that I had been speaking to you." That day, Riley allegedly deleted all of his Facebook messages with the suspect.
After his arrest on Friday, Riley briefly appeared in federal court. Prosecutors did not seek to detain him while the case is ongoing, though the court has imposed some restrictions on his travel as well as the possession of firearms.
In a statement, Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said, "Obstruction of Justice is a very serious allegation. The Department was notified about this investigation several weeks ago. Upon his arrest, the officer was placed on administrative leave pending the completion of the case. The USCP's Office of Professional Responsibility will then open an administrative investigation."
A representative of the labor union that represents officers with the Capitol Police did not respond to a request for comment. NPR was unable to reach Riley's attorney.
Members of Congress have repeatedly praised the heroism of Capitol Police and other law enforcement in their response to the violent attack, while still questioning how the leaders of the Capitol Police and other agencies handled the events of that day.
Still, some Capitol Police officers have come under scrutiny for their actions during the siege. In September, the Capitol Police stated that they had conducted internal investigations of more than 20 officers, and recommended that at least six receive discipline for actions including "conduct unbecoming," failure to comply with directives," "improper remarks" and "improper dissemination of information."
At that time, the Capitol Police stated that "the U.S. Attorney's Office did not find sufficient evidence that any of the officers committed a crime."
The indictment against Riley changes that, and may add to the longstanding and growing concern about the presence of extremism in the ranks of law enforcement and the military.
NPR has found more than 80 defendants - 13 percent of the total - charged in connection with the Capitol riot have links to law enforcement and the military. A recent leak of data from Oath Keepers - some of whose members are facing conspiracy charges related to the Capitol attack - indicated that current and former officers have signed up with the extremist militia group.
There is no evidence in the indictment that Riley has links to any known extremist organizations. Still, the indictment suggests that he harbored some sympathy for an alleged participant in the Capitol riot, an incident that the FBI has classified as an act of "domestic terrorism."
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
An officer with the U.S. Capitol Police was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice today. Federal prosecutors say the officer tipped off a suspect from the January 6 Capitol riot and told the person to delete Facebook photos showing them inside the building. Tom Dreisbach from NPR's investigations team has more and joins us now. Hi, Tom.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: What can you tell us about what this officer allegedly did?
DREISBACH: Well, the officer is named Michael A. Riley. He's been with the Capitol Police for almost 25 years, most recently with the K-9 unit. Now, prosecutors in the indictment unsealed today say that at during the Capitol riot or just after, this officer saw someone on Facebook posting photos of themself inside the Capitol during the attack. And this person talked about being inside the building. Now, the indictment does not indicate that the officer passed this information to the FBI or his own agency. Instead, the officer allegedly tipped off this person and said, quote, "I'm a Capitol Police officer who agrees with your political stance." And the officer allegedly said this person should take down the photos and other posts. Now, Officer Riley and the suspect did not know each other, according to the court papers, but they did allegedly send dozens of messages back and forth. The suspect was arrested in January, and soon after, Riley allegedly deleted all of his Facebook messages on this.
MCCAMMON: And Tom, what can you tell us about these charges he's facing?
DREISBACH: He's facing two counts of obstruction of justice - one count for allegedly telling this Capitol riot suspect to hide evidence of their involvement, the other is for allegedly destroying the evidence of his own messages. He briefly appeared in court today, the officer. He will not be held in jail pending trial, though there are some restrictions on his travel and he can't possess any firearms.
MCCAMMON: What do the Capitol Police have to say about this?
DREISBACH: The chief of the Capitol Police released a statement to us. He said, quote, "obstruction of justice is a very serious allegation." The department notified - or was notified about the investigation several weeks ago, they said. Officer Riley is now on administrative leave while the case is ongoing, and that's standard procedure in these cases.
MCCAMMON: And what does this development mean in terms of the broader investigation into January 6?
DREISBACH: Yeah. I mean, we should note that more than 100 police officers total were injured during the Capitol riot. And members of Congress and the public have, you know, repeatedly praised the heroism of many of those officers. But even early on, there were questions about how some members of the Capitol Police handled themselves during the riot. The department ultimately did launch internal investigations into more than 20 members of the department. They recommended discipline against at least six for things like conduct unbecoming and improper remarks. But this case involving Officer Riley is definitely the most serious. It involves actual criminal charges, unlike the others.
MCCAMMON: Right, and since the riot, existing concerns about extremism among police and the military have only grown. Tom, what does this indictment tell us? Does it tell us anything new about that?
DREISBACH: Yeah, we've been talking about this for a while, and NPR's been tracking every single case connected to the riot. More than 80 defendants, we found, have ties to law enforcement or the military, so that has raised some real concerns. In this case, there's no allegation that Officer Riley was a member or had links to any kind of extremist group. But the indictment overall does suggest some sympathy he may have had for a person allegedly involved in this attack, which the FBI calls an act of domestic terrorism. So it'll definitely add to the broader concern nationwide.
MCCAMMON: NPR's Tom Dreisbach, thank you.
DREISBACH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.