WASHINGTON — A DC police officer took the stand Wednesday to describe his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to hold back the mob at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, talking the jury through videos that showed him getting knocked over and struggling on the ground as a man tried to rip off his helmet and gas mask, choking 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 depicting different angles of his physical altercation on the Capitol grounds with Thomas Webster, a New York man charged with assaulting him. Rathbun occasionally 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 lawyer, 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 meant to wave Webster back and create distance.
The officer agreed he made contact with Webster’s face at one point, but maintained it was open-handed and incidental to trying to push Webster back after Webster twice tried to shove the metal bike rack that Rathbun and other officers were trying to keep in place to stop the crowd of thousands from advancing closer to the Capitol. Rathbun’s exchanges with Monroe were calm, even as Monroe suggested he’d withheld information about his contact with Webster from investigators, an accusation Rathbun denied.
Webster’s defense against the six-count indictment hinges on what happened during his roughly minutelong encounter with Rathbun. Webster isn’t denying that videos and photos show him yelling obscenities at Rathbun and other officers, pushing against the bike racks, swinging a metal flagpole with a US Marine Corps flag attached at the officers, charging at Rathbun and knocking him down, and trying to remove the officer’s helmet and gas mask. But Webster maintains that Rathbun instigated the confrontation and that he acted in self-defense; his lawyer throughout two days of trial has consistently referred to the face contact as a “punch.”
Rathbun walked the jury through his day on Jan. 6. He said he’d been stationed at the White House as part of a bicycle response unit on stand-by for an expected political demonstration; supporters of former president Donald Trump gathered for a rally that morning near the Ellipse. At around 1 p.m., Rathbun said a radio call went out for assistance at the Capitol, 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 bangs and chemical irritants in the air — and the crowd was “hostile,” cursing at him and other officers. The local police officers made their way to the front of the building to join outnumbered US Capitol Police officers. Rathbun said they were being “pelted” by objects. He said he’d never faced a crowd that hostile before in his time on the force. He recalled feeling “overwhelmed” and said it quickly became “scary.”
Rathbun paused and looked at a screen in front of him on the witness stand, which displayed a bird’s eye photograph of the crowd of thousands in front of the single line of police officers that he’d been part of after Assistant US Attorney Brian Kelly asked why the situation had become scary. The officer explained how easily the crowd could have overcome the officers as the “temperature” of the situation was quickly rising.
“We didn’t have any options," he said.
Narrating a video recorded by his body camera, he said that when Webster came to the bike rack line and started yelling at him to “take your shit off,” he understood that to mean Webster wanted to fight him. He said he tried to use his hands to create distance and push Webster away, and denied using a closed fist or punching him. He said he was trying to physically push Webster back after the man had twice tried to push the bike racks, since there was nothing else to stop the crowd from going forward.
Webster swung the flagpole towards the officers and hit the rack, causing the metal pole to separate. Rathbun said he grabbed the pole from Webster and then retreated. He said Webster charged at him and knocked him to the ground, and tried to pull off his helmet and his gas mask. Rathbun said his helmet chin strap was caught on his neck and the bottom of his gas mask pressed into his throat, choking him. When the gas mask separated from his face, it let in irritants in the air, and when the mask snapped back on, it trapped those irritants inside, making it hard to breathe.
Kelly asked what was going through his mind at that point. Rathbun gave a wry laugh — one of the few times he smiled during his testimony — and replied, “not good things.”
Rathbun was hospitalized later in the day, but not because of his confrontation with Webster. He cut his hand trying to clear the crowd out of the Capitol Rotunda and had to get stitches, and filed an injury report related to that. Kelly and Monroe questioned him about why he didn’t file a report about bruising on his legs that he said he’d sustained from the contact with Webster. Rathbun said it didn’t seem like a reportable injury, and that being pushed to the ground didn’t feel like a meaningful incident given the other injuries officers suffered and the fact that several died. He said he hadn’t reported bruises and minor cuts that he got on the job that hadn’t required medical treatment in the past.
Monroe brought up the Metropolitan Police Department’s policies about 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 officers weren’t allowed to use force solely in response to verbal abuse from a civilian, and that punching someone in the face as a response to verbal abuse would violate the policy. But he disputed that’s what happened at the Capitol.
Kelly asked Rathbun what he thought about the events of Jan. 6, looking back more than a year later.
“I think it’s sad. You know, this whole incident is tragic but I try not to think about it,” he said. “I just think it’s unfortunate to be in the nation’s capital and be treated like that by another citizen.”