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A police officer is telling his version of events during the attack on the Capitol

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Two years ago, the Capitol was attacked by rioters who supported and were encouraged by then-President Donald Trump. One of the U.S. Capitol Police officers trying to protect people that day was Lieutenant Tarik "T.K." Johnson. But a video shared after the attack of Johnson wearing a MAGA hat and talking to demonstrators led to an assumption that he was sympathetic to the attackers. Now Johnson is telling his side of what happened that day in his first broadcast interview since the attacks.

TARIK JOHNSON: My last day of actually working was January the 6 of 2021.

FADEL: Johnson was almost immediately suspended from duty for 17 months.

Did they tell you why? Why you were suspended?

JOHNSON: I believe the MAGA hat situation. And I was suspended 'cause the leadership did not want me telling this story.

FADEL: After his suspension, Johnson chose to quit the Capitol Police force. He said he was worried there'd be retribution for his criticism of department leadership. And he says that leadership failed him and his fellow officers that day as they were being attacked.

JOHNSON: I saw fighting like I've never seen before in my entire life. They were punching, and they were swinging. They were throwing water bottles. They were throwing, like, smoke bombs, gas bombs. I had heard on the radio that rioters had actually got into the building. Once the Capitol was actually breached, I thought that was it. I thought my life was going to be over. So I called my wife, and I told her, the Capitol is breached. I don't know if I'm getting out of this. I love you, and I love Angela, which is my daughter.

FADEL: And Angela is your daughter?

JOHNSON: Yes. So - and this is hard. I didn't want to talk to my daughter because if I had talked to my daughter, she would've tried to talk me out of staying, and she would try to convince me to leave. So I said, I'm not going to talk to my daughter. I just told my wife to tell her goodbye.

FADEL: Oh, my God. So you really thought you were going to die that day?

JOHNSON: Oh, I thought that was it. Yeah, I thought that was it. So I asked for help for one of - I only heard one commander over the radio, senior commander. And that was Assistant Chief Yogananda Pittman. So I heard her. So I said something to the effect that the Capitol's breached. We have hundreds of demonstrators in the building. What do you want us to do? We need some direction. And I didn't hear anything. So I was thinking, oh, Jesus Christ, we're going to die here.

FADEL: So Johnson says he took matters into his own hands. He made the decision to evacuate the Senate and the House, knowing he could face disciplinary action for his choice.

And so you basically had to make decisions on the fly in a situation that's unprecedented, trying to think about how to live, from what you're describing, without getting any direction from leadership.

JOHNSON: That is correct. I did make the call to do those evacuations, but it couldn't have been done without the officers. So I have to give those officers kudos because had they not followed the order, it would've been a travesty that day. And it would've been a massacre that day.

FADEL: The picture of you in a MAGA hat is quite infamous at this point. And then we've also seen video that a filmmaker took in which you're trying to get your fellow officers out evacuated. I want to hear from you what happened, how you ended up in that hat and how you ended up talking to these Oath Keepers who ultimately helped you get your fellow officers out.

JOHNSON: One of the demonstrators that were outside stuck the hat on my head when I was walking through the crowd. And so when he put the hat on my head, he wanted the hat back. So I was trying to get him to let me keep the hat.

FADEL: But why? Why did you want the hat?

JOHNSON: Because I figured that I could use the hat for two reasons - one as a de-escalation tool and one as a way to protect myself because I figured that if I was wearing a MAGA hat, that people probably wouldn't want to try to attack me. I was scared to death. So I was standing outside with the hat on at one point. And then these two guys come up to me, and one of the guys say - he says, what do you think about what's going on out here? I said, this is terrible. Most of the people here, most of my co-workers voted for Trump, and we're getting beat up. And then he asks, how could he help? And I say, well, I got some officers trapped at the top of the steps, and I need help getting them out. And he says, sure. So he helps me. And he basically led me up the steps. We walked up there. And once we got up to the top of the steps, I was specific in my direction. I said, listen. Hold on to the person in front of you. And we're marching out. And then at some point, a hole opened up, and we ran out of here.

FADEL: So you basically put that hat on to save your fellow officers.

JOHNSON: And to save my life, my own life.

FADEL: Many of Johnson's former colleagues were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for their service on January 6. But because Johnson resigned, he says he did not qualify for one.

JOHNSON: I could care less about being acknowledged. I just wanted the medal because the only thing I look at now and the piece of memorabilia that I have from January 6 was the MAGA hat.

FADEL: Are you a Trump supporter?

JOHNSON: I did vote for Trump in 2016. And the reason why I voted for Trump in 2016 was because I believed that he would be the best person for our economy. In 2020, I voted for Biden and Harris. And the reason why I voted for them is because I looked at our country, and our country was divided. And I figured that he would probably be the best person to try to unite our country.

FADEL: Right. You made your choices as an American.

JOHNSON: Yes.

FADEL: Does it make you angry that because you wore that hat that day, a decision was made about you and what you were doing that day? I mean, basically, when those images first came out, it was people saying, look at the police sympathizing with a crowd attacking the Capitol.

JOHNSON: People have the right to make their own decisions. So that was never my issue. What was my issue was that I was muted from telling anybody my position because when you're under investigation, you can't speak about the event.

FADEL: So all of that time, you couldn't say anything publicly?

JOHNSON: No.

FADEL: So you - in your view, police leadership failed you? There was no plan. When you asked for direction, you got silence, from what you describe to us. And you had to figure out on your own how to save yourself and your fellow officers and everybody else in that building that day. But also, a lot of people blame the former president for riling that crowd up and blame certain politicians for not keeping people accountable and saying what needed to be said. Do you also agree with that?

JOHNSON: I had no idea what was coming that day, but we could have known. And one of the biggest issues is that when the fighting occurred on that day and I begged for help, I wasn't begging Donald Trump for help. I was begging Yogananda Pittman. And she ignored me.

FADEL: Former U.S. Capitol Police officer T.K. Johnson. We asked the U.S. Capitol Police for a response to Johnson's accusation that former Assistant Chief of Police Yogananda Pittman ignored his request for direction during the attack. The department said in a written statement that it was, quote, "baffling" because Johnson was part of uniformed operations, and the statement said she was not in his chain of command that day. She was assistant chief of police for protective and intelligence operations. They say officials from uniformed operations did respond and provided direction. Also, the department said they couldn't tell us why Johnson was suspended because they can't discuss personnel matters. The statement did say it wasn't just about a political hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPCORN TREES' "HALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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