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Protecting the Capitol


SUMMARY: U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn ('05) reflects on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and how his experience in athletics at JMU helped him learn to overcome adversity.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M) 

As a member of law enforcement, U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn (’05) took an oath to protect and serve. “I’ve always liked the idea of protecting and serving, with an emphasis on serving,” Dunn said. “I think a lot of times that [piece] gets lost in police work.”

Protecting others comes naturally for Dunn, who, at 6 feet, 7 inches tall, and 325 pounds, was a starting offensive lineman on the Dukes’ 2004 national championship football team. “In sports, you learn to do things for the guys around you,” he said, noting a similar bond with his fellow police officers. The notion of service was awakened in Dunn at an early age. “My parents instilled in me, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Treat people right,” he said. He credits his upbringing and his involvement in athletics at JMU with teaching him the value of working together to achieve common goals and overcome adversity. 

On Capitol Hill, Dunn and his colleagues are charged with protecting Congress, its members, employees, visitors, buildings and grounds. That mission was put to the test on Jan. 6, 2021, when an angry mob stormed the Capitol to try to stop lawmakers from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. While the First Amendment gives every American the right to assemble peacefully and protest, Dunn said, “when those demonstrations turn violent and people are hurt, that’s when it becomes a problem. Now you’re breaking the law.” Beyond the physical and emotional demands of experiencing an insurrection, Dunn testified that he and other Black officers endured racial epithets from some of the rioters. The events of the day amounted to “a stain on American history,” he said, one that could resurface if the underlying causes are left untreated. 

Still, “as ugly as January 6th was,” Dunn said, “not one member of Congress or their staffs were hurt, and lawmakers went back [early the next morning] and certified the election, which made me so proud as an American, because democracy did not stop.”

JMU Civic partnered with Dukes LEAD to bring Dunn to campus in October to share his experiences with students, faculty and staff. Listen to an interview with Dunn for the Madison Center for Civic Engagement's Democracy Matters podcast series.

Dunn, now in his 14th year with the Capitol Police, serves as a training officer for new recruits fresh out of the academy. “Policing has come under scrutiny in the last few years,” he said. “But I’m not going to quit. Let’s make it better. I’ve always believed in the phrase, ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world.’ So why not start by leaving my [imprint] on these new officers?”

Dunn also advocates for making mental health services widely available to members of law enforcement. “The support that I’ve received … has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “And the fact that I’m speaking out on this and I feel like I’m making a difference empowers me to keep going. I see a purpose.” 

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Published: Monday, December 13, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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