In recent years media articles and reports on police involvement in violent extremist groups, particularly far-right and white supremacist groups, have been released on a monthly or even weekly basis. These include reports on active and retired police who participated in the January 6 Capitol riot, on active and retired police whose names appeared on leaked membership rolls of the Oath Keepers militia, and on widespread incidents of police brutality against members of minority groups, especially Black people, and subsequent police responses to protests against the same. The articles receiving the most attention tend to paint a picture of police being recruited to join violent extremist groups, to whom they then provide weapons, training, and advice. This is indeed worrisome, but it appears to involve relatively few numbers of officers. A wider look at the varying intersections between policing and violent extremism reveals that the problem is more complex than it may seem. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] analyzed a set of articles and reports that mentioned both policing and violent extremism published between 2017 and 2022, finding four major ways that police and violent extremism, particularly white supremacist and far-right violent extremism, intersect.
- Law Enforcement Joining and Training Violent Extremists
The first way that policing and violent extremism intersect is the simplest and most highly covered. Articles abound about the hack and leak of Oath Keepers membership, with the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] identifying nearly 400 active members of law enforcement, including police and sheriff’s deputies, as well as other types of law enforcement such as Border Patrol. Although most of these individuals did not publicize their membership in the group, they typically touted their law enforcement experience on their applications, with some even promising to recruit their colleagues. In Orange County, a sheriff’s deputy was investigated after wearing an Oath Keepers patch while on duty at a Black Lives Matter protest. There have also been instances of police officers joining the Ku Klux Klan [KKK], the Proud Boys, and Identity Evropa, among others.
There are many reasons why active and retired law enforcement may be attracted to far-right violent extremist groups, beyond surface-level ideological alignment, which rarely paints a full picture of radicalization to violent extremism. Violent extremist groups offer these individuals, particularly veteran law enforcement officers (as well as military veterans), a sense of camaraderie, structure, and identity that they may be missing, as well as the opportunity to fight for what is claimed to be a noble cause. Often these motivations are the same reasons why people choose careers in law enforcement in the first place! For police, reform measures such as bans on chokeholds and efforts to end qualified immunity may be perceived 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 align with extremists in their claimed efforts to defend democracy and American values, preserve gun rights, stop illegal immigration, keep America white, etc.
- Violent Extremists Joining and Training Law Enforcement
The intersections between policing and violent extremism are multidirectional. Violent extremist groups certainly make efforts to recruit police into their ranks, but they have also sought to join police forces and sheriff’s departments themselves in order to gain training and intelligence, to ingratiate themselves with law enforcement, and to position themselves in places of power especially as they anticipate impending racial holy war or the collapse of society and its remaking according to their extremist vision. It also appears that violent extremists have been relatively successful at conveying their ideology and goals to law enforcement en masse as police trainers. In May 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. These extremist trainers also espouse the “Constitutional Sheriff” philosophy, which promotes the idea that sheriffs should enforce only the laws they view as constitutional. In addition to concerns that arise surrounding the messages that these trainers convey to law enforcement nationwide, it is also troubling that police leadership and sheriffs, who may not explicitly adhere to or endorse violent extremist ideologies, are nevertheless so attracted to these messages that they are willing to pay for these extremist individuals to train their forces.
Indeed, 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. 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. Thus, it makes sense that law enforcement leaders and officers alike would prefer trainings that build their self-esteem and reinforce their worldview than those that do the opposite.
- 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. 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, but other far-right violent extremist groups often view themselves as on the side of institutions. Violent nationalist or fascist groups, for example, perceive themselves as hyper-patriotic. Baked into their ideologies is the idea that their nation, in this case the United States, is under attack by forces that seek to destroy it. Their actions, whether anti-immigrant, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, or anti-Black, are therefore framed as protective, not destructive, and as aligned with the police. Hence, the perception of support from police is often enough for violent extremist groups to proclaim their legitimacy and patriotic bona fides. These perceptions are reinforced by police behaviors such as cooperating with far-right counter-protesters during Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, assisting January 6 rioters during and after the riot, and exchanging texts with members of Patriot Prayer as they prepared for violent fights with left-wing protesters in Portland, Oregon. In cases when police act contrary to the beliefs of far-right violent extremists, as the vast majority of Capitol Police did when they protected Congress on January 6, they are held up by extremists as evidence of anti-American conspiracies.
- Law Enforcement’s Perception of Violent Extremists as Non-Threatening Allies
Alas, the perception by violent extremists that police are on their side is not always wrong. Indeed, a survey of over 500 sheriffs found that 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.” Additionally, 11 percent of the survey respondents said that they supported or strongly supported the Oath Keepers in particular. Perhaps consistent 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 6, a clearly disproven claim. Other research has found that police systematically and disproportionately focus their intelligence collection and arrests on left-wing protesters (including in the lead-up to January 6), despite continued assessments that the primary domestic violent extremist threat in the United States comes from far-right groups.
When violent extremists perceive law enforcement as allies, it is sometimes due to overt police actions, but it is also innate in their ideologies. When police perceive violent extremists as non-threatening or even as allies, it is sometimes due to the overt actions and statements of violent extremists, but sometimes in spite of them. 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. In some cases, law enforcement has been actively “aided” by violent extremists, such as members of militia groups on the Southern border. Violent extremist groups’ actions, particularly on January 6, 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.
What Can Be Done to Counter These Intersections Between Policing and Violent Extremism?
The line connecting all four forms of intersection described above is the 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. The cycle of far-right violent extremist groups portraying themselves as patriotic, police joining groups they perceive as patriotic, and far-right violent extremist groups holding up police in their ranks as evidence of their patriotism is complemented by perceptions by some police that far-right violent extremists are non-threatening and supportive, leading to implicit or explicit support for these groups by police, reinforcing violent extremists’ perception that the police are on their side.
With these characteristics in mind, several conclusions can be drawn. First, 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, and trainers and policymakers should consider highlighting how these reforms better enable police to protect themselves and their communities. Surely, patriotic police wanting to act heroically for their communities is something to be encouraged. Second, police should receive training aimed at inoculating them against the false claims of patriotism and pro-police sentiment voiced 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. Third, given the importance of data, specifically regarding arrests and convictions, to increasing police department funding, incorporating a requirement for prosecutors 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 and should be emphasized as a measure of police success. Likewise, police should be encouraged to also do social media searches and background interviews of potential recruits to avoid taking them into their ranks.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]