Anne Speckhard & Molly Ellenberg
On September 1st, 2022, Thomas Webster was sentenced to ten years in prison for his violent actions at the U.S. Capitol Hill insurrection on January 6th, 2021. Webster was convicted of a variety of felonies, including assaulting a police officer. Prior to joining the rioters on January 6th, Webster had much in common with the man who would become his victim; Webster is a retired New York City Police Department officer who once served on Mayor Bloomberg’s protective detail (Medina & Tumin, 2022). Many have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of supporters of former President Trump who attacked police on that fateful day, following a summer of cries to “Back the Blue” against Black Lives Matter protesters (Attiah, 2021). Yet, Webster’s case and others make clear that even some police officers apparently did not perceive the Capitol Hill police as being worthy of their respect that day – NPR reported that nearly 30 off-duty police officers had been charged with crimes related to the insurrection in the days following the event (Westervelt, 2021). Even some Capitol Police officers appeared to be on the side of those attempting to attack the Capitol building and those inside. One such officer was convicted of obstruction of justice for telling a rioter to delete social media posts from the insurrection, along with the message that he “agree[d] with your political stance” (Balsamo & Long, 2022). Others were accused of posing for selfies with and handing out water to the rioters (Finnegan, 2021). Indeed, Webster’s own argument that he was acting in self-defense exemplify the belief among those on the violent far right that the officers protecting the Capitol were traitors and that the rioters were acting to protect democracy, as the police should have been. Said Webster about the officer at whom he swung a metal flagpole before tacking him to the ground: “I felt like I was the cop and he was the protester” (Medina & Tumin, 2022).
In light of the events of January 6th, as well as the increasingly publicized violent acts by police officers against unarmed Black people, including during the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020 (Volk, 2021), journalists and others have begun to highlight the worrying link between police officers in the United States and other Western countries and far-right violent extremism. For example, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report on the connections between white supremacist groups and law enforcement officers across the United States, citing internal documents from the FBI going as far back as 2006. As German (2020) argues, “Research organizations have uncovered hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating in racist, nativist, and sexist social media activities, which demonstrates that overt bias is far too common.” He continues, “These officers’ racist activities are often known within their departments, but only result in disciplinary action or termination if they trigger public scandals.” Further evidence of this problem was provided by leaks of membership rolls of the far-right, anti-government militia, the Oath Keepers, which revealed 373 active and 1,100 former law enforcement officers, detectives, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, chiefs of police, and sheriffs whom the Oath Keepers claimed as members. The Oath Keepers are a militia movement that opposes the federal government and vows to fight against it particularly regarding gun control and their differing interpretations of constitutional rights. The police who signed on to the Oath Keepers appear to have understood their value to this violent extremist group when they applied, offering to “spread the word,” “encourage,” and even “recruit” their fellow officers and trainees. Others touted their firearms training and experience in radio communications, undercover operations, and surveillance (ADL, 2022). In the January 6 attacks, these skills Oath Keepers had learned in policing and military training were put to use.
Despite the slew of investigative reports and activist work on the prevalence of active and former law enforcement in far-right violent extremist groups, however, scholarly work on the particular vulnerability of active and retired police officers to far-right violent extremist radicalization and recruitment is limited. A search for scholarly literature related to police and violent extremist radicalization yielded much on two subjects: Police harassment and mistreatment as a source of grievance leading to radicalization and police efforts to counter violent extremist radicalization. Standing nearly alone is an analysis of radicalization within military and police special forces units in Germany, Canada, Australia, and the U.S. by Koehler (2022). The analysis suggests “that a lack of diversity in gender and ethnicity, elite warrior subcultures, echo chamber effects and cognitive rigidity can be come vulnerability factors for extreme right radicalization” of police and military forces (p. 1).
Similarly, Speckhard and colleagues (2021) highlighted in a report on violent extremist radicalization of active and veteran military servicemembers that there are myriad reasons, many of them psychosocial in nature, that violent extremists seek to recruit individuals with military experience, and why people with military experience might find these groups appealing. Specifically, white supremacist and far-right violent extremist groups seek active servicemembers and veterans for their training and access, their sense of discipline and structure, their ability to lend the group an air of legitimacy, and their ability to provide the group with a patriotic façade. In turn, active servicemembers and veterans are vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment by these groups because they provide a sense of belonging and camaraderie that is often missed after discharge, an outlet for expressing grievance against the government for some and an ability to feel as though one is still fighting for a noble cause for others, and pseudo-psychological support for posttraumatic stress symptoms – a continuation of rank structure and discipline as well as a culture accepting and even encouraging of drinking, fighting, and hypervigilance. Another outlier in its examination of violent extremist radicalization among police forces is a report put forth by Zaman and Khalid (2015), which details that although Afghan police officers appeared to generally accept democratic governance following the U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban, a significant portion, primarily those serving in Qandahar, continued to hold an extremist militant jihadist ideology which rejected the Afghan government at the time as a legitimate authority. These analyses may not apply as neatly, however, to everyday police officers who nevertheless appear to be radicalizing in small numbers, but at an alarming rate, with deadly consequences.
The Present Study
It is clear that there is limited academic scholarship on violent extremist radicalization among police officers, but news articles and reports by non-profit organizations abound. The present article aims to analyze this work on the aggregate, exploring and highlighting common factors which shed light on the depth and breadth of the problem. The analysis aims to fill the gap in the literature on the particular psychosocial aspects of radicalization and recruitment of active and former police officers. First, we provide a brief overview of the historical context for this problem, discussing the history of American policing and its overlap throughout history with violent extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Next, we turn to recent history, focusing on the last five years (2017-2022) of media reports on police and other law enforcement officers being involved with violent extremist groups. Within those reports, we identified four themes which are subsequently broken down in order to highlight the psychosocial features of each. These four themes are: (1) Law enforcement personnel joining and providing training to violent extremists, (2) violent extremists joining and providing training to law enforcement, (3) violent extremists perceiving law enforcement as supportive of their cause, and (4) law enforcement perceiving violent extremists as non-threatening allies.
The History of the Intersection Between Policing and Violent Extremism
Given the decentralization of law enforcement agencies, both police and sheriffs’ departments, in the United States, it is difficult to determine how many law enforcement officers have ties to violent extremist groups or, more broadly, believe in violent extremist ideologies. What is certain, however, is that the overlap between police and violent extremists is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is one that can be traced back to the slave patrols in the antebellum South (Walker, 1980) and later to cooperation between the Ku Klux Klan and police departments (Feldman, 1997), which often delivered Black prisoners into the hands of lynch mobs in the late-nineteenth and early- to mid-twentieth century (Ifill, 2003). Of course, brutality toward Black and allied protesters was on full display in the 1960s and 1970s (Echols, 2022), and Birmingham, Alabama police leadership later admitted that some of their officers were active members of the KKK, and that many others, including infamous police commissioner Bull Connor, were ardent supporters (Feldman, 1997). Throughout Alabama, county sheriffs refused to arrest Klansmen unless ordered to do so by a grand jury. Indeed, the only incidence of a KKK-related conviction in 1940s Alabama was against a group of Black teenagers who “formed their own ‘Klan’ to keep neighborhood women from dating white men” (Feldman, 1997, p. 774).
Accountability for police has gradually increased over the past three decades, particularly with the advent of cell phone videos which support victims’ allegations and often contradict official police reports (Harden, 2016), though such progress has been halting. Prior to the proliferation of cell phones, when a bystander filmed police beating Rodney King in 1991, that video raised the alarm about police brutality but failed to secure convictions (Sastry & Bates, 2017). In 2014, the cell phone video of Eric Garner being suffocated by police prompted the U.S. government to begin tracking instances of people killed by police, which it had not previously done (Harden, 2017). As Tom Mockaitis wrote in The Hill in 2021, most law enforcement officers are not white supremacists, and a history of racism in the structures and policies of law enforcement agencies does not mean that these agencies are white supremacist organizations. In the same vein, not all officers who commit acts of brutality or respond harshly toward protesters are motivated to do so by a white supremacist ideology. However, he writes that this same history “creates an environment conducive to extremist recruitment.”
The Intersection Between Policing and Violent Extremism, 2017-2022
Twenty-two news reports, alongside scholarly analyses, were used in the present analysis. Details regarding the media reports are provided in Table 1.
|Link||State(s) Mentioned||Number of Law Enforcement Officers Mentioned||Theme(s)|
|The Oath Keepers Data Leak: Unmasking Extremism in Public Life||Nationwide||373||1|
|Ex-Cop Who Messaged 1/6 Rioter Guilty of Obstruction||Washington, D.C.||1||3|
|A Black Man Was About to Buy a House. Then, He Found a KKK Application in a Bedroom.||Michigan||1||1|
|Will Fox News-Loving Sheriff’s Oath Keeper Ties Cost Him His Job?||California||1||1, 4|
|Assistant Police Chief Disciplined for Nazi Insignia on His Office Door, Holocaust Jokes||Washington||1||1|
|Does Your Sheriff Think He’s More Powerful Than the President?||Nationwide||>300||4|
|Proud Boy Love and Racist Memes: New State Audit Uncovers Sickening Conduct by Calif. Police||California||17||1|
|Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement||Nationwide||>12 individual cases of group involvement; >3,500 cases of racist social media behavior||1|
|A Pro-Trump Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers, and Veterans||Nationwide||“Thousands”||1|
|Police Chief Bans ‘Thin Blue Line’ Imagery, Says It’s Been ‘Co-Opted’ by Extremists||Wisconsin||N/A||3|
|U.S. Police Trainers with Far-Right Ties are Teaching Hundreds of Cops||Nationwide||>560||2|
|2 Virginia Police Officers Fired for Alleged Ties to White Supremacist Groups||Virginia||2||1|
|Prevalence of White Supremacists in Law Enforcement Demands Drastic Change||Nationwide||15 trainers||2|
|Dozens of Oregon Law Enforcement Officers Have Been Members of the Far-Right Oath Keepers Militia||Oregon||>24||1|
|‘Disturbing’ Texts Between Oregon Police and Far-Right Group Prompt Investigation||Oregon||1||3|
|Several U.S. Capitol Police Officers Have Been Suspended After Welcoming Pro-Trump Rioters into the Building. 10 to 15 Officers Under Investigation, Lawmaker Says||Washington, D.C.||2-15||3|
|Kyle Rittenhouse Didn’t Act Alone: Law Enforcement Must Be Held Accountable||Wisconsin||N/A||3, 4|
|O.C. Deputy Under Investigation After Wearing Extremist Paramilitary Patch at George Floyd Protest||California||1||1|
|Active-Duty Police in Major U.S. Cities Appear on Purported Oath Keepers Rosters||New York, California, Illinois||18||1|
|Hack Exposes Law Enforcement Officers Who Signed Up to Join Anti-Government Oath Keepers||Nationwide||200||1|
|White Supremacists ‘Seek Affiliation’ With Law Enforcement to Further Their Goals, Internal FBI Report Warns||Texas||N/A||2|
|Chief: East Hampton Officer’s Proud Boys Membership Didn’t Break Policy||Connecticut, Louisiana||2||1|
Law Enforcement Joining and Training Violent Extremists
The most prominent articles published over the last five years concerned the Oath Keepers hack and subsequent leak. While an initial report from USA Today stated that there were 21 confirmed active police officers among the Oath Keepers’ ranks (out of 200 members who claimed to be active or retired law enforcement), the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism identified 373 active law enforcement professionals within the Oath Keepers database (Carless, Hauck, & Mansfield, 2021; ADL, 2022). In fact, over two dozen Oath Keepers with law enforcement experience hailed from the state of Oregon alone (Levinson, 2021). Thirteen active members of the Chicago Police Department were also on the Oath Keepers list (Yousef et al., 2021). Some members contacted by USA Today claimed to no longer be (or have never been) actively involved with the extremist group and to have allowed their memberships to lapse, but their leaked applications reveal that most of these same individuals joined the Oath Keepers with a clear understanding of the group’s ideological stance and a willingness to contribute their knowledge, skills, and experience to furthering the group’s purpose. Other police who applied to join the Oath Keepers promised to recruit their colleagues as well (Giglio, 2020). Although some law enforcement officers attempted to keep their membership hidden, others did not, as in a case of an Orange County sheriff’s deputy who wore a patch proclaiming allegiance to both the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters movement (both militias opposing the federal government regarding their specific interpretations of constitutional rights) on his uniform while working at a Black Lives Matter protest (Winton, 2020). Another adherent to the Three Percenters movement, himself a former sheriff’s deputy, was arrested in 2018 for the 2017 bombing of a mosque in Minnesota (Sankin & Carless, 2018).
The Oath Keepers are not the only extremist group attracting police officers. In 2014, two police officers in Florida were found to be members of the Ku Klux Klan [KKK] (Schneider, 2014). In another case, a potential home buyer found a KKK application in the home of a Michigan police officer; notably, one who had previously shot and killed a Black civilian but was cleared of wrongdoing by the local prosecutor (Bella, 2019). In Virginia, two police officers were fired after they were revealed to be members of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a white supremacist group which adheres to a racist pagan ideology which holds that white people are descended from the gods (Gardell, 2005), and Identity Evropa, which adheres to what may be considered a more mainstream white nationalist ideology (Jones & Murphy, 2019). An assistant police chief in the state of Washington posted a Nazi insignia on his office door (Brady, 2022). A Connecticut police officer kept his job even after his membership in the Proud Boys was revealed, though a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy was fired for his Proud Boys activity (Kunzelman, 2019). In California, an official audit of police officers’ social media posts found that six active officers had affiliated themselves with various extremist groups online: The Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, an unnamed anti-immigrant extremist group, an unnamed anti-LGBTQ extremist group, and a pro-Confederacy extremist group (Dickinson, 2022). Importantly, although some pro-Confederacy groups claim to profess nothing more than “Southern pride,” such affection for the Confederacy from a police officer in California (which entered the United States as a free state and was on the side of the Union during the Civil War) suggests a white supremacist ideology.
There are numerous psychosocial factors which contribute to the appeal of violent extremist groups, particularly far-right violent extremist groups, to active and former members of law enforcement. Some of these overlap with the reasons active and veteran military members are attracted to the same groups (Speckhard, Ellenberg, & Garret, 2021). Particularly attractive to individuals with military or law enforcement experience, or both, are the sense of camaraderie and structure offered by these groups. Upon separation from the military or police (especially if such separation is involuntary), experiencing a loss of one’s sense of identity is to be expected (Romaniuk & Kidd, 2018), and violent extremist groups deliberately present themselves as worthy replacements (Borum, 2014). Military veterans may also be attracted to the idea of continuing to fight for a “noble cause” – protecting America from domestic enemies (Kruglanski et al., 2014; Speckhard, Ellenberg, & Garret, 2022). For active and former law enforcement, this noble cause may be an even more potent motivator. Law enforcement organizations, particularly police unions, have frequently expressed outrage over police reform measures such as bans on chokeholds and efforts to end qualified immunity (Friedersdorf, 2014; Skogan, 2008). Law enforcement officers who are most angered by such measures may be worried for their own safety or perceive them as efforts to curtail the power of police and empower far-left forces. In the latter case, these same individuals are susceptible to claims by violent extremist groups that the only way to protect America from the insidious forces seeking to destroy it is to take the law into their own hands. This may manifest as providing information, weapons, training, and expertise to violent extremist groups who can interact more aggressively with protesters or otherwise act in a more violent manner toward perceived threats to law and order. For sheriffs and sheriffs’ deputies, this “noble cause” mindset may also present as the Constitutional Sheriff ideology, which holds that county sheriffs should refuse to enforce laws which they believe to be unconstitutional – an ideology which began in opposition to desegregation efforts in the mid-twentieth century (Kanu, 2022) but is now exemplified in violent extremist groups such as Oath Keepers, Patriot Front, Three Percenters, and others.
In our research interviews with a sample of 51 current and former white supremacists and far-right violent extremists, a former leader of the English Defence League stated that police taught her group “How to corral a crowd, how to have a fight and not get caught, how to defend yourself.” Police also “would provide protection for more valuable members.”
Violent Extremists Joining and Training Law Enforcement
Equally concerning as police offering training and assistance to extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and others is the same relationship in the opposite direction. Whereas research and data suggest that police are at a low and decreasing risk of being attacked or killed in the line of duty (White, Dario, & Shjarback, 2019), trainers linked to violent extremist groups like the Oath Keepers emphasize dangers toward police, making their trainees hypersensitive to threat, the very cognitive process which is linked to wrongful police shootings and police brutality based in implicit bias (Jost et al., 2009). Even trainings intended to promote cultural diversity and reduce prejudice among police, argues Beliso-De Jesús (2020), are often taught through the lens of “political correctness” and thus trivialized in the eyes of police recruits, who learn instead to focus on fighting a war on crime and viewing their fellow minority community members as combatants.
In May of 2022, Reuters identified five individuals with ties to the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and the Q-Anon conspiracy theory who are regularly hired to train police officers nationwide. Together, these individuals have trained hundreds if not thousands of police officers. Among them, one man alone, who was briefly banned from advertising on a Washington State training commission website due to complaints about racism and misogyny espoused during his trainings, trained 560 officers in 12 states between 2018 and 2022. The same individual was also listed in the Oath Keepers database and publicly praised the Three Percenters while running for sheriff in Idaho in 2020. Another police trainer advertised his association with the accelerationist Boogaloo Bois through regular social media posts and also tweeted about spending time with now-indicted Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs. A third trainer and founder of a training firm used false claims about the 2020 election being stolen as an opportunity to advertise their training. The trainer posted that “you have just witnessed a coup, the overthrow of the US free election system, the end of our constitutional republic, and the merge of capitalism into the slide toward socialism” in December of 2020. His company posted, “Who will be joining us for training in 2021? Need explosives, firearms, ammo? Call us today!” shortly thereafter (Harte & Ulmer, 2022). Notably, many of these trainers, and the law enforcement leaders who hire them to train their forces, adhere to the “constitutional sheriff” philosophy which promotes the idea that sheriffs should enforce only the laws they view as constitutional (Kanu, 2022). Providing training is one of myriad ways through which violent extremist groups seek to ingratiate themselves with law enforcement and thereby support their political aims for society.
Highly troubling, and complex, is the apparent willingness of police and sheriffs’ departments to welcome extremists as paid trainers. This overlap between law enforcement and violent extremism thus concerns not only individual officers who may be susceptible to violent extremist radicalization and recruitment, as described above, but rather police leadership and sheriffs who may not explicitly adhere to or endorse violent extremist ideologies but are nevertheless attracted to the messages such adherents convey to them.
These extremist trainers’ messages are highly psychologically appealing. First, they are validating to the reasons many entered the police force—desiring a sense of “noble” purpose, feeling of being a guardian of society, and being on the side of right and good. In contrast to implicit bias trainings, which police may perceive as telling them that they are racist for perceiving members of minority groups as threats, extremist trainers tell police that they are right to perceive these individuals as threats and that they need to be vigilant to the dangers posed to them by minority community members. In fact, recent research found that police who were concerned about appearing racist experience crises of self-legitimacy, resulting in greater approval for use of force and coercive policing methods in order to restore their sense of power (Trinkner, Kerrison, & Goff, 2019). Police were also likely to perceive danger and act antagonistically when they perceived civilians as disrespectful or hostile (Nix, Pickett, & Mitchell, 2019), perceptions which may be increased if views in the media that there is a war on the police are reinforced in police trainings. Second, these trainings promote a sense of unique purpose and personal significance important to every career professional, but in this case with a racist spin. They reinforce to police the idea that they comprise the “thin blue line” between order and chaos; that they alone are what keeps society from disintegrating into anarchy (Wall, 2020). This plays into the “noble cause” trope as well that violent extremists promote—the idea that white culture needs protection. The feeling that one is a hero and is necessary to the success of their community is one that is incredibly beneficial to one’s self-esteem and thus difficult to willingly reject (Baarle et al., 2015; Cottee & Hayward, 2011). Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that law enforcement would prefer these trainings which build their self-esteem and fit neatly into their existing worldview than those that do the opposite.
Not only do police forces have close ties to trainers that are members of violent extremist groups, members of such groups also attempt to infiltrate the police and gain training and insider access by joining. In 2021, law enforcement agencies in Texas and elsewhere were alerted to an FBI investigation finding that members of the extremely violent neo-Nazi group the Atomwaffen Division were attempting to affiliate themselves and even gain careers with local law enforcement in order to gain skills and relationships that they would need to facilitate an eventual fall of society and initiate a race war (Margolin, 2021). The reasons why violent extremists would seek to join law enforcement are fairly clear-cut: Doing so gives them access to weapons, training, and intelligence, and also provides them with networking and relationship-building opportunities that they believe will be of great import during a coming racial war or other such collapse of society which many of these groups are seeking to promote. Shane Johnson, a former recruiter for the KKK, recalled specifically targeting police and military members for recruitment due to their skills and training. Red, a former recruiter for the National Socialist Movement, expressed that controlling 911 centers, fire departments, and police was critical to winning the coming racial war. Preventing police infiltration by violent extremists, as in the military context, would require more detailed recruitment questions designed to weed out adherents to extremist ideologies as well as incorporating social media into standard background checks and ensuring that a social background check even occurs in the case of police recruits (Buck et al., 2005; Dawson, 2021).
Violent Extremists’ Perception of Law Enforcement as Supportive of Their Cause
The intersection between police and violent extremists extends beyond membership in extremist groups and provision of training. Experts cited in the reports reviewed explained that the perception of support from police is often enough for violent extremist groups to proclaim their legitimacy and patriotic bona fides (Watson, 2021). For example, an analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union highlighted videos of police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, thanking and handing out water to armed civilians turning up at Black Lives Matter protests, one of whom was Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager later acquitted by reason of self-defense for the killing of such protesters. Rittenhouse had also previously trained in a police cadet program for youth. One member of the Boogaloo Bois even alleged that police told him that they would “push them down by you, because you can deal with them, and then we’re gonna leave.” Such a statement would support violent extremists’ belief that they are supporting the police by taking actions that the police were not able to take against protesters.
Timing and location of protesters, as well as evidence that the Kenosha police knew where militia members would be stationed, supports the allegation of cooperation (Watson, 2021). This information extends beyond any broad details that might have been legally registered with the police beforehand. In another case, although police officers were largely the victims of the January 6th Capitol Hill riot, two were suspended for helping rioters enter the Capitol building (Shamsian & Haroun, 2021), and another was later charged for telling rioters to delete evidence from their social media pages (Balsamo & Long, 2021). In our research interviews, a Proud Boy who took part in the Jan 6 capitol invasion referenced his relationship with police and his offers to take matters into his own hands and defend the police by attacking Antifa members who were throwing “piss” balloons at the police. In Portland, Oregon, a police lieutenant was found to have frequently exchanged friendly text messages with the leader of the white supremacist group Patriot Prayer, raising questions about differential police treatment of far-right protesters and far-left counter protesters during violent clashes (Ortiz, 2019). That another Portland police officer was found to be a member of the Oath Keepers only adds to this concern (Levinson, 2021). The consequences of such behavior have not gone un-noticed, such as by Chief Kristen Roman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison police department, who warned officers against “jovial interactions, selfies, and the like” with far-right extremist protesters, such as those at the Capitol on January 6th and those who intend to harass and intimidate Black Lives Matter protesters (Griffith, 2021).
Violent extremists’ perception of law enforcement as supportive of their groups is influenced by a number of psychosocial factors. As is evidenced by the cases cited above, actual behavior by law enforcement certainly contributes to this problem but features of far-right violent extremist ideologies also require active efforts to disprove the notion. Notably, anti-government militias are frequently included under the broader umbrella of far-right violent extremist groups, and these are typically wary of any institutional authorities (Pitcavage, 2001). Other far-right violent extremist groups, however, often view themselves as on the side of institutions. Violent nationalist or fascist groups, for example, perceive themselves as hyper-patriotic (Perry & Schleifer, 2022). Baked into their ideologies is the idea that their nation, in this case the United States, is under attack by forces which seek to destroy it. Their actions, whether anti-immigrant, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, or anti-Black, are therefore framed as protective, not destructive (Blout & Burkart, 2020) and as aligned with the police. They are thus predisposed to view institutional authorities, particularly the police and military, as on their side. Indeed, people who support the Confederate flag (used in one study as a proxy for implicit or explicit white supremacy) were significantly less likely than non-supporters to perceive bias against Black people in the criminal-legal system and significantly more likely than non-supporters to perceive police as friendly (Updergrove, Cooper, & Dmello, 2021).
In cases when police or military actions contradict this perception, far-right violent extremists frame them as evidence of anti-American conspiracies. For example, when elected officials, particularly Black elected officials, institute police reform, white supremacists view this as evidence of a pro-crime position aimed at dismantling the police rather than improving it (Keyes & Keyes, 2022). Similarly, Davey and Weinberg (2021) found that on far-right violent extremist Telegram channels, individual military members and military tactics are sources of inspiration, but the U.S. military’s activities on the broad scale are used to perpetuate antisemitic conspiracy theories that the U.S. military is used to perpetuate globalization and do Israel’s bidding on the world stage.
Law Enforcement’s Perception of Violent Extremists as Non-Threatening Allies
Violent extremists’ perception that some law enforcement professionals are on their side is supported by survey responses from over 500 sheriffs collected by a team of journalists and political scientists in 2022. The survey results make clear that leaks of the Oath Keepers’ membership rolls and high-profile cases of law enforcement assisting or joining violent extremist groups are only a slice of the full picture of this challenge. Nearly half of the respondents agreed with the constitutional sheriff ideology that their power superseded that of the federal government in areas under their jurisdiction. In the same vein, approximately one-third of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it” (italics added). Additionally, 11 percent of the survey respondents said that they supported or strongly supported the Oath Keepers in particular. Perhaps consistently with an apparent perception that far-right violent extremist groups did not pose a threat, over half of the survey respondents stated that the far-left movement Antifa was responsible for the violence on January 6th (Chammah, 2022) despite this being clearly disproven claim of the far-right. Indeed, this perception of who is threatening and who is not is supported by statements such as those from Sheriff Chad Bianco, himself a former dues-paying member of the Oath Keepers, who said about the group’s involvement on January 6th, “Except for a few fringe people, that’s not really what they stand for. They certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution” (Boryga, 2021). The Oath Keepers’ own statements and actions suggest otherwise (Speckhard & Ellenberg, 2022).
These reports are supported by academic work which critically examined police responses to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, finding that police tended to downplay or outright deny the risk posed by local white supremacist groups and exaggerate the threat posed by counter protesters. As a result, an analysis by Castle (2021) found that local and federal law enforcement not only focused their policing and intelligence work on Antifa-type activists, but also provided more protection to the white supremacist protesters than to the counter protesters. Beyond the article’s holistic framing of policing as innately white supremacist, it also highlights that referring to white supremacist groups as “losers” or “nuisances,” which is sometimes done in an effort to deprive these groups of their power or stature, can nonetheless serve to minimize the threat posed by the groups in the minds of law enforcement. Such statements also decrease trust in police among marginalized communities, who perceive the police as not taking threats against them seriously. Of course, such feelings are amplified by surveillance and other intelligence measures taken against activist groups working to counter white supremacist groups in their communities (Castle, 2021). These feelings are similarly validated by studies which show that in 2017 and 2018, 81 percent of protesters and counter-protesters arrested in the United States were identified as left-wing, compared with only eight percent who were identified as right-wing (Wood, 2020), this despite the lethality of domestic violent extremist attacks being far higher from right-wing versus left-wing groups (Federal Bureau of Investigation & Department of Homeland Security, 2022).
The broader police response to the January 6th riot is emblematic of this underestimation of threat, beyond the individual officers alleged to have actively aided and abetted the rioters. Johnson (2022) writes that “despite the fact that police were on notice about the plans of the mob to disrupt Congress, rioters were met with a less imposing show of force than the response mustered for previous peaceful protesters [during the previous summer’s Black Lives Matter protests], and few arrests were made on the scene even though there was a significant amount of violence and property damage” (pp. 559-560). Johnson notes that the disparity in treatment of protesters depending on both race and cause is not the only concern, but rather that the lack of immediate arrests resulted in failure to detect evidence of firearms, explosives, and discussions of conspiracies between arrestees. Johnson concludes, “Whether those at the top of the Capitol Police Department were blind to the threat posed by Trump supporters because of their race, or were so sympathetic to [their] ideology and goals that they actively aided them, their response was at odds with their goal of public safety and national security” (p. 560). There is however also evidence that the Capitol Police were not well informed of the threat nor adequately staffed and supported (Swan & Lippman, 2021).
When violent extremists perceive law enforcement as allies, it is sometimes due to overt police actions, but it is also innate in their hyper-nationalist or fascist ideologies (Perry & Schleifer, 2022). When police perceive violent extremists as non-threatening or even as allies, however, it is sometimes due to the overt actions and statements of violent extremists, but sometimes in spite of them. As is clear from the evidence described presently, violent extremists make great efforts to present themselves as on the side of police, whether in their social media posts of “Blue Lives Matter” or in their offerings of assistance during Black Lives Matter Protests. Like the extremist trainers described previously, violent extremist groups’ propaganda aims to build up the self-esteem of police by framing them as critical to the continuation of the country, and validates their fears by depicting “the other,” usually Black people and undocumented immigrants, as dangerous (Harte & Ulmer, 2022). In some cases, law enforcement has been actively “aided” by violent extremists, such as members of militia groups on the Southern border (Strickland, 2022). Violent extremist groups’ actions, particularly on January 6th, belie their pro-police façade; they are only supportive of police whom they believe are supportive of them – all others are viewed as traitors to the cause (Jones et al., 2021).
As reports of individual cases of radicalization among law enforcement amass and data leaks like that of the Oath Keepers membership rolls continue, it becomes more difficult to view this phenomenon as one of individual difference; that some police officers, sheriffs, and sheriffs’ deputies simply happen to become radicalized and recruited by far-right violent extremist groups. Rather, the abundance of evidence suggests that the overlaps between law enforcement and far-right violent extremism are the result of complementary psychosocial characteristics of both law enforcement and these violent extremist groups making it harder for police to realize the dangers of and distance themselves from such groups and ideologies.
First, far-right violent extremist groups present themselves as patriotic in order to recruit members of law enforcement. Members of law enforcement, believing these groups are patriotic, decide to join. In turn, violent extremist groups use the presence of law enforcement as well as former military on their membership rolls and as recruiters and trainers as evidence of their patriotism and masculinity. Second, far-right violent extremist groups, with the exception of anti-government militias, perceive themselves to be on the side of law enforcement and they offer law enforcement their vocal support. Even anti-government militias that are anti-gun control cast their activities as anti-criminal and aligned with law enforcement. Law enforcement may subsequently believe that far-right violent extremists are less threatening than anti-police and criminal groups. Similarly, law enforcement may believe that restrictions on policing behavior curtail their ability to promote order and therefore lend tacit support to far-right violent extremist groups who appear to support the police when they act violently toward anti-police or other left-wing groups. The violent extremist groups may in turn interpret such behavior by law enforcement to signal overall support for their extremist ideologies and long-term goals, versus a short but common interest during times of extreme violent protests. Finally, just as law enforcement may interpret police reforms as overly inhibitory, they may also interpret trainings from proponents of such reforms as detrimental to their work and, even more importantly, to their self-concept. Law enforcement leadership may therefore be more likely to invite trainers who reinforce their self-esteem and beliefs about their role in the community by promoting a combat mindset and hypersensitivity to threat and an “othering” of minority members who are cast as unpatriotic or criminal. As a result, the trainers to whom law enforcement officers are exposed are able to more easily promote extreme ideologies, such as the “Constitutional Sheriff” idea. The same trainers have also been found to use dehumanizing language which, especially in combination with language promoting a combat mindset and “them versus us” view of minorities, increases the likelihood of police shootings and other acts of police brutality against members of minority groups.
This research has numerous implications for future policy and practice but also indicates the difficulty of implementing such changes. Reforms to policing and more stringent regulations aimed at reducing incidents of police brutality may be interpreted as efforts to subvert their authority and prevent them from successfully doing the job they view as patriotic and carrying out a noble purpose. As a result, law enforcement might increasingly turn to violent extremists who offer their help. Another implication of the present findings is that police should receive training aimed at inoculating them against the false claims of patriotism and pro-police sentiment by far-right violent extremism and alerting them to the threat that these groups pose to the communities the police are charged with serving and protecting. Clearly, though, these trainings will be less appealing to police departments than those which appear supportive of their current actions.
Other recommendations involve the broader criminal justice system. For example, Johnson (2019) suggests that prosecutors should be required to investigate the backgrounds of police serving as witnesses in trials, including by monitoring social media statements and emails, and that any findings of membership in violent extremist groups should be disclosed to the defense, as required by the Brady doctrine. Likewise, given the importance of data, specifically regarding arrests and convictions, to increasing police department funding, incorporating a requirement to scour social media of police members would provide an incentive for departments to weed out violent extremists who could pose a risk to conviction rates. Similarly, documenting hate crime arrests and convictions is important. Indeed, Johnson (2022) cites the acquittal of O.J. Simpson as an example of how an officer’s racist views can turn the tides of a winnable case. In another article, Johnson (2022) highlighted that the failure of the Capitol Police to perceive the true threat of the January 6th rioters and have the forces present to make immediate arrests may mean the difference between misdemeanor and felony convictions. Another recommendation, posed by Harden (2016), also focuses on the many benefits to police that measures against violent extremism convey. Specifically, Harden suggests that increased use of social media can increase police accountability, including through exposure of police membership in violent extremist groups, but can simultaneously be used to increase trust in police, leading to increased reporting and cooperation. This requires respect of the social media system, however, with Harden strongly warning against arrests or harassment of those who post videos of instances of police brutality online.
The media and scholarly articles aggregated and analyzed presently is definitely not and should not be interpreted as an indictment of policing altogether or as a branding of all police as white supremacists or violent extremists. Rather, the articles suggest that the problem of the intersection between violent extremism and law enforcement is more than a spurious correlation or the result of a few bad apples, but that there are clear steps that can be taken to address the issue, including new trainings and policy reforms across the criminal justice system to help police to understand that white supremacists and anti-government militias are not on their side and detrimental to their true mission. These steps must be taken with a full awareness of the psychosocial reasons why this intersection exists, however, namely the draw of patriotism and a noble cause, the feeling that one is being attacked by an enemy other, and the desire to maintain a self-concept which views oneself as a hero and warrior. None of these reasons are easy to overcome, nor are they inherently negative or antisocial. In fact, the very same psychosocial processes implicated in radicalization to violent extremism have also been found to motivate prosocial behavior, such as environmental conservation (Molinario et al., 2020). Surely, patriotic police wanting to act heroically for their communities is something to be encouraged, but in a way that does not “other” minorities or make police blind to the dangers of violent extremist groups. Amid a seemingly never-ending barrage of negative news about violent extremist radicalization among law enforcement, closer examination of the psychosocial factors which drive such radicalization may indeed provide hope.
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 We have opted to capitalize “Black” but not “white” in accordance with the AP’s style guide. According to the AP, capitalizing “Black” conveys “an essential and shared history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.” In contrast, “white people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”