Rich Shapiro et al., NBC News, August 26, 2021
In the chaotic minutes before he shot and killed Ashli Babbitt during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, Lt. Michael Byrd focused his attention on the glass doors leading into the lobby of the House of Representatives chamber.
About 60 to 80 House members and staffers were holed up inside, and it was Byrd’s job to protect them.
As rioters rampaged through the Capitol, Byrd and a few other officers of the U.S. Capitol Police set up a wall of furniture outside the doors.
“If they get through that door, they’re into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress,” added Byrd, who gave NBC News permission to use his name after authorities had declined to release it.
Byrd’s connection to what was going on outside and inside the building was his police radio. For several minutes, it crackled with a cascade of alarming messages.
There were shouts of officers down. Screams from his colleagues under attack by rioters with chemical agents. A report that an officer’s fingertips were blown off.
Soon a horde of demonstrators arrived. Byrd, a 28-year veteran of the Capitol Police, took a defensive posture with his gun drawn as rioters smashed the glass doors.
He said he yelled repeatedly for them to get back. But the mob kept pressing forward, and then a lone rioter tried to climb through one of the doors.
What happened next was captured on video: Byrd fired one shot, striking Babbitt in the shoulder.
Babbitt, 35, an Air Force veteran and ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump, fell to the ground; she died from her injuries later.
Her death became a rallying cry for the far right, which described Babbitt as a martyr. Trump himself declared that she had been murdered and suggested, falsely, that the officer who shot her worked for a high-ranking Democrat.
For Byrd, who is Black, the incident turned his life upside down. He has been in hiding for months after he received a flood of death threats and racist attacks that started when his name leaked onto right-wing websites.
But in his interview with Holt, Byrd said he has no doubt that he made the right decision in light of the circumstances.
“I know that day I saved countless lives,” Byrd said. “I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that’s my job.”
Byrd said he had no idea whether the person he shot was carrying a weapon. It was only later that night that he found out that the rioter was a woman who was unarmed.
Asked why he pulled the trigger, Byrd said it was a “last resort.”
Byrd has been cleared of wrongdoing by the Justice Department and the Capitol Police. In announcing its decision not to charge him, the Justice Department said in April that investigators had examined video, physical evidence from the scene, autopsy results and statements from the officer involved, as well as other officers and witnesses.
It was the first time Byrd had ever shot his weapon in his 28 years on the force. Over the next few minutes, he helped the House members evacuate the building. He said it wasn’t until later that night, when he got the chance to watch TV coverage, that he understood the full scope of the Capitol riot.
The Babbitt family’s attorney has described the incident as an “ambush,” alleging that the officer gave no warning before he pulled the trigger. Babbitt’s family has signaled its intention to file a civil lawsuit against the Capitol Police; it had previously filed court papers seeking the name of the officer who shot her.
An incident in Byrd’s past has also gained renewed attention online: In 2019, he left his service weapon in a bathroom, where another officer eventually discovered it.
In the NBC News interview, Byrd described the incident as a “terrible mistake.”
“I owned up to it. I was penalized for it. I moved on,” he said.
After having remained silent for seven months as the investigations dragged on, Byrd said he wanted to speak out to counter the misrepresentations of his actions that day, even if doing so exposes him to more threats and vitriol.
“It’s something that is frightening,” Byrd said. “Again, I believe I showed the utmost courage on January 6, and it’s time for me to do that now.”
He said that he knows there are people who disagree with his actions that day and that they may always.
“I hope they understand I did my job,” Byrd said. “There was imminent threat and danger to the members of Congress. I just want the truth to be told.”