As a young police officer in Chicago, Tom O’Halleran faced an angry mob during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, that elevated into a riot.
Tempers raged. Objects, some of them incendiary, were thrown. Fights broke out as O’Halleran and his colleagues tried to keep the politicians inside safe.
“Whether it was down at the Hilton or at Lincoln Park, mostly it was crowd control and trying to keep streets open,” O’Halleran said. “Our job was to maintain the situation. When you stand in line for hours at a time and have rocks and other things thrown at you on a constant basis it becomes a little more difficult. Nobody likes violence but you do have to maintain order.”
Fast forward 53 years — to Jan. 6, 2021. O’Halleran, a three-term Congressman who represents Maricopa, was on the floor of the U.S. Capitol when rioters — some of them armed — breached security, hoping to thwart Joe Biden from being certified as the duly elected president.
O’Halleran’s days in law enforcement flashed back.
“We were very short on (law enforcement) personnel and we just had to maintain a calmness within the chambers,” O’Halleran said. “I feared for others’ lives. We have others now in Congress who have been police officers or in the military, who had been trained to use gas masks and to keep people calm. I told those around me to watch the officers, listen to the officers, because they know what’s going on outside.”
O’Halleran had been a homicide detective, an undercover police officer and a special-operations officer.
“I’d seen a lot,” he said. “That allowed me to maintain a calmness that other people might not maintain. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t think it was wrong. It doesn’t mean that it would be sad if people were hurt or injured. But it did mean that during that time I had to go back to my training. If you’re trained to be calm, and to think ahead, and if you’re able to ascertain and evaluate a situation on a timely basis, that’s what you naturally do.”
As lawmakers were told to evacuate, O’Halleran said he could see rioters beating down a barricaded door that led directly into the hallway that was lawmakers’ escape route.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over the certification proceedings, escaped rioters by only a few feet. What if they had gotten to Pence? Would he have been injured or even killed? Where might our democracy be today?
“I don’t know if the amount of people we had there would have been able to maintain his safety if they had gotten to him,” O’Halleran said. “It was a dangerous, dangerous situation as we found out later because some people did have weapons. The police acted very appropriately, and they were able to get the vice president to safety.
“Our democracy must survive. We are part of a world that is in turmoil right now. We have to know when to unify and overcome our adversaries. We have to be able to maintain a strong economy in this world so we are seen as a leader, but also a central force that can bring people together so world wars don’t occur.”
This content was first published in the September edition of InMaricopa magazine.