WASHINGTON — A DC police officer took the stand Wednesday to describe his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to hold off the mob at the U.S. Capitol to rip off his helmet and gas mask, suffocating him in the process, he said.
Officer Noah Rathbun, a member of the Metropolitan Police Department since 2015, showed no emotion as he repeatedly watched videos showing different angles of his physical altercation on Capitol grounds with Thomas Webster, a New York man accused of assaulting him. From time to time, Rathbun looked away from the screen and shifted in his seat, adjusting the bulletproof vest he wore as part of his uniform.
Rathbun denied claims by Webster’s attorney, James Monroe, that he made a hand gesture inviting Webster to fight him and then punched Webster in the face, unprovoked except for verbal abuse. Rathbun said his hand gestures, as captured on video, were intended to greet Webster and create distance.
The officer agreed that he made contact with Webster’s face at one point, but maintained that it was open-handed and incidental to trying to back Webster up after Webster twice attempted to push the metal bike rack that Rathbun and other officers were trying to hold him in place. the crowd of thousands move closer to the Capitol. Rathbun’s exchanges with Monroe were calm, even when Monroe suggested that he had withheld information about his contact with Webster from investigators, a charge Rathbun denied.
Webster’s defense against the six-count indictment hinges on what happened during his approximately minute-long encounter with Rathbun. Webster does not deny that videos and photos show him yelling obscenities at Rathbun and other officers, pushing against bike racks, waving a metal pole with a US Marine Corps flag attached to officers, charging Rathbun and knocking him down, and attempting to remove the officer’s helmet and gas mask, but Webster maintains that Rathbun instigated the confrontation and acted in self-defense; His attorney throughout two days of trial has consistently referred to the facial contact as a “punch.”
Rathbun guided the jury through their day on January 6. He said that he had been stationed at the White House as part of a bicycle response unit awaiting an expected political rally; Supporters of former President Donald Trump gathered for a rally that morning near the Ellipse. Around 1 p.m., Rathbun said a radio call for help went out on Capitol Hill and a riot was declared.
When Rathbun arrived on the west side of the Capitol complex, he said the scene was “very chaotic” — there were loud explosions and chemical irritants in the air — and the crowd was “hostile” and cursed at him and other officers. Local cops headed to the front of the building to join the outnumbered US Capitol cops. Rathbun said they were being “thrown” by objects. He said that he had never faced such a hostile crowd before in his time on the force. He recalled feeling “overwhelmed” and said he quickly became “terrifying.”
Rathbun paused and looked at a screen in front of him on the witness stand, which showed a bird’s-eye view of the crowd of thousands in front of the only line of police he had been a part of after the US attorney deputy Brian Kelly asked why the situation had become frightening. The officer explained how easily the crowd could have overpowered the officers as the “temperature” of the situation was rapidly rising.
“We had no choice,” he said.
Narrating a video recorded by his body camera, he said that when Webster got to the bike rack line and started yelling at him to “get the fuck off,” he took that to mean Webster wanted to fight him. She said she tried to use his hands to create distance and push Webster away, and denied fisting or punching him. She said that she was trying to physically push Webster back after the man had twice tried to push the bike racks, as there was nothing else to stop the crowd from moving forward.
Webster swung the flagpole toward the officers and hit the rack, causing the metal pole to separate. Rathbun said he grabbed Webster’s post and then backed off. He said Webster charged at him, knocked him to the ground, and tried to remove his helmet and gas mask. Rathbun said the chin strap of the helmet was caught on his neck and the bottom of the gas mask pressed against his throat, suffocating him. . When the gas mask came off his face, he let airborne irritants in, and when the mask came back on, he trapped those irritants inside, making it difficult to breathe.
Kelly asked what was going through her mind at the time. Rathbun gave a wry laugh, one of the few times he smiled during her testimony, and responded, “Not good things.”
Rathbun was hospitalized later that day, but not for his confrontation with Webster. He cut his hand trying to get the crowd out of the Capitol Rotunda and had to get stitches, and he filed an injury report related to that. Kelly and Monroe asked him why he didn’t file a report on the bruises on his legs that he said he had sustained from contact with Webster. Rathbun said it didn’t seem like a reportable injury, and being pushed to the ground didn’t feel like a significant incident given the other injuries sustained by the officers and the fact that several died. He said he hadn’t reported minor bruises and cuts he got at work that hadn’t required medical treatment in the past.
Monroe mentioned the Metropolitan Police Department’s policies on the use of force by officers, and had Rathbun explain that officers were supposed to “defuse” and de-escalate situations as much as possible before using force. Rathbun agreed that officers were not allowed to use force solely in response to verbal abuse of a civilian, and that hitting someone in the face in response to verbal abuse would violate the policy. But he disputed that that was what happened on Capitol Hill.
Kelly asked Rathbun what he thought of the events of January 6, looking back over a year later.
“I think it’s sad. You know, this whole incident is tragic, but I try not to think about it,” she said. “I just think it’s unfortunate to be in the nation’s capital and be treated like this by another citizen.”