The officer who fatally shot a pro-Trump rioter during the U.S. Capitol attack on Jan. 6 says he did so because she was putting lawmakers in danger, in his first public comments about the incident.
“I saved countless lives,” said Lt. Michael Byrd, who revealed his identity in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt on Thursday. “She was posing a threat to United States House of Representatives.”
Video from the incident shows Babbitt trying to climb through the shattered window of a door into the House of Representatives lobby, with a crowd of rioters around her. An officer on the other side, now identified as Byrd, can be heard telling her to stop. He then fires a single shot at her as she is partway through the window, striking her in the shoulder.
“I tried to wait as long as I could,” Byrd said. “I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors. But their failure to comply required me to take the appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers.”
Babbitt fell back into the crowd and was rushed out of the Capitol after the shooting. She was then taken to hospital, where she later died.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump and his supporters have since tried to turn Babbitt into a martyr, after she died fighting to overturn an election based on Trump’s false claims of election fraud. Trump has claimed that Babbitt was “murdered,” and has called for her killer to be prosecuted.
Byrd’s lawyer, Mark Schamel, has said his client is facing “many credible death threats” and other “horrific threats” and that he has been forced from his home because of them.
Authorities cleared Byrd of any wrongdoing in April, without releasing his name to the public. U.S. Capitol Police also deemed his conduct to be “lawful and within Department policy,” after wrapping up an internal investigation into the shooting earlier this week.
Nevertheless, Byrd’s name has been circulating among far-right groups on the internet for months, and he says he’s faced a slew of threats and racist insults since the Jan. 6 attack.
“I am afraid because I know there’s people that disagree with my actions on Jan. 6,” said Byrd, who is Black. “But I hope they understand I did my job. And there was imminent threats and danger to the members of Congress.”
Byrd spoke at length about his harrowing experience during the attack. He recalled hearing about the rioters’ advance over his police radio, which offered him a steady stream of reports about violence and officers going down.
Byrd and some fellow officers were entrusted with protecting lawmakers who were taking shelter in their chambers. He says his team barricaded the entrance to their area in hopes of keeping out the mob that was coming up the stairs toward them.
“Once we barricaded the doors, we were essentially trapped where we were,” he said. “There was no way to retreat. No other way to get out.”
He added that the barricade was their last hope to keep the rioters away from the lawmakers inside.
“If they get through that door, they’re into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress,” Byrd said.
Byrd says he drew his gun and shouted at the protesters to back off when they came up the stairs, as per police protocol.
“You’re ultimately hoping that your commands will be complied with and unfortunately, they were not.“
A lawyer for Babbitt’s family has argued that she did not pose a threat because she was not brandishing a weapon. She also was not close enough to any lawmakers to harm them, and she posed no imminent threat of serious injury or death to anyone, the lawyer argued.
Byrd says it didn’t matter whether she was armed.
“According to law, it does not. I know, based on my training and my policy, what I did was appropriate.”
Byrd says he followed his training in that situation, and that he shot Babbitt to save many others.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. has said there is not enough evidence to prosecute Byrd for the shooting.
“The investigation revealed no evidence to establish that, at the time the officer fired a single shot at Ms. Babbitt, the officer did not reasonably believe that it was necessary to do so in self-defence or in defence of the Members of Congress and others evacuating the House Chamber,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
The Capitol Police investigation found that Byrd was following department policy. The policy says an officer should only use deadly force when they reasonably believe their actions will be in defence of human life — either their own or another person who could be “in immediate danger of serious physical injury.”
Babbitt was a California native who served in the USAF for 14 years. She served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was later deployed with the National Guard to Kuwait and Qatar.
Social media posts in the months before her death showed that she had fallen into the fantasy world of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that imagines Trump as a warrior for God against a secret cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles in Hollywood and the Democratic Party.
Babbitt posted several messages ahead of the riot which referred to a “Storm” — a supposed reckoning for QAnon’s imagined foes, which many believers thought would take place on Jan. 6.
The FBI labelled QAnon a domestic terror threat in 2019, and later warned that its followers continued to present a danger after the Capitol attack.
Babbitt was one of five people who died during the attack. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, 42, died from injuries sustained at the hands of the mob, while Trump supporters Kevin Greeson, 55, and Benjamin Philips, 50, reportedly died of a medical emergencies amid the excitement. Roseanne Boyland, 34, was trampled to death by her fellow Trump supporters.
At least 140 Capitol Police officers were injured in the attack.
Several of those officers filed a lawsuit against Trump and several of his allies on Thursday, accusing them of intentionally sparking the violence to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election win.
The suit in federal court in Washington alleges that Trump “worked with white supremacists, violent extremist groups, and campaign supporters to violate the Ku Klux Klan Act, and commit acts of domestic terrorism in an unlawful effort to stay in power.”
Trump spent several weeks promoting Jan. 6 as a rally for his supporters in D.C., and he riled up the MAGA crowd immediately before they marched on the Capitol.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he told the crowd. He also pushed his false claims of voter fraud that day, despite having failed to prove his theory in over 60 court cases.
The House of Representatives impeached Trump for a second time for inciting the insurrection. A majority later voted to convict him in the Senate, but the vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to punish him.
—With files from The Associated Press