Inside QAnon’s toxic spread among police officers

Inside QAnon’s toxic spread among police officers
Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA

The problem with police officers being white supremacists is an obvious one: The public cannot have confidence that laws will be enforced equitably when even one such officer employed is racially bigoted or generally unhinged. The problem is somewhat less obvious when cops succumb to conspiracy theories, especially considering their spread into the mainstream in recent years—but it can be every bit as big a problem, especially when it involves an authoritarian political cult like QAnon.

And QAnon is indeed spreading among the ranks of American police officers, as Ali Breland recently explored at Mother Jones. Breland explains that this spread is particularly worrisome because of the peculiar nature of the QAnon theories themselves. "The logic of the conspiracy theory almost requires its adherents to carry out acts of violence: If you actually believe that elites are harboring scores of children in underground tunnels to rape and steal blood from, taking action to liberate them would be a moral imperative," he writes.QAnon seems to have taken root within New York City's police department in particular: The head of the department's second-biggest union gave a televised interview with a QAnon coffee cup in full view on the shelf behind him, and offered no clarification or apology afterward. The Harlem NYPD precinct's social media account retweeted a number of QAnon-related posts (including one accusing the mail-order business Wayfair of "sex trafficking young girls"), along with a number of Donald Trump tweets that spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and mail-in voting.

However, the conspiracist cult has spread to police precincts all around the nation. By far the most public and prolific of the officers adopting the conspiracy theories is Jason Bandy, who was formerly employed by the New Haven, Connecticut, police department.

Bandy has produced nearly 30 episodes of a podcast devoted to QAnon conspiracy theories, where he holds forth at length about a variety of dubious claims, gullibly relaying them all to his audience.

"These elites are torturing these kids," Bandy said in a March 22 podcast. "Yes, there's sex involved. They're trafficking these children and all these other rituals that they do. They are Satanic worshipers. They are Illuminati. Deep state, all this."

Bandy believes the ultimate proof of QAnon's substance is the fact that Donald Trump—around whom the theories revolve as the chief heroic figure—has refused to disavow them:

But my thing is look, Donald Trump calls fake everything out. If this stuff is fake, he'd be the first one to say, "Hey, this is fake." That's not what he said. When they asked him, "Do you know what Q is?" he said, "I'm not gonna say, but I'm just gonna tell you I think you'd be really surprised."

Bandy retired from the New Haven department in September after Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said there would be an internal affairs investigation into his posts, which remains ongoing.

Police in Bellevue, Washington, also suspended an officer—Nico Roche, who only recently joined the city's police department—after his frequent QAnon-related social-media posts became known. (A spokesperson told Daily Kos that the internal investigation, announced in June, will be completed soon.) His chief, Steve Mylett, told KIRO-TV in Seattle that the investigation would try to balance the officer's rights with the public's.

"The employee has constitutional rights, as everybody else, officers do. He's got freedom of speech, freedom of expression. We carry a burden and our standard is very high because of the work that we do and what we represent," said Mylett.

Not all jurisdictions take it seriously. In Joliet, Illinois, two officers who wore "Q" vests while participating in an anti-COVID-19 rally in Springfield were defended by the city's mayor, Jeff Grove, who told the local newspaper that he intended to judge the officers solely on the basis of their daily work, adding that in his view, "what you do on your own time is your choice, and that's your right." If any issues arise, he said, "we'll definitely be addressing them."

The officers—Matthew Kunkel and Mark Manicki—were even more aggressive in defending their associations with the conspiracy cult. "I, like millions of other people on this planet, enjoy the challenge of attempting to decode the information contained within the Q drops. It's called 'Q Research' for a reason, it requires research to obtain the information encoded within the posts," Manicki explained to the Times. "I'm merely someone who sits on my couch late at night with my dog on my lap, iPhone in hand, while seeking the truth. Last time I checked, there was nothing wrong with that!"

In reality, the FBI has previously identified the QAnon cult as one of the leading sectors for the kind of conspiracism that, as the agency put it in a bulletin that was issued to law enforcement officers, is "very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity. The FBI further assesses in some cases these conspiracy theories very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places, and organizations, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence against these targets."

And it warned that this is indeed a threat to public safety: "Anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace over the near term, fostering anti-government sentiment, promoting racial and religious prejudice, increasing political tensions, and occasionally driving both groups and individuals to commit criminal or violent acts," the bulletin read.

It lists several domestic terrorism cases as examples of conspiracy-fueled crimes, including a widely reported incident in July 2018 when a fervent believer in the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theories blocked traffic across Hoover Dam in Nevada, as well as a 2013 attack on security officers at Los Angeles International Airport.

The bulletin also mentions two incidents that had not been previously reported in the media:

  • The December 2018 arrest of a California man found in possession of bomb-making materials, who allegedly "planned to travel to Springfield, Illinois and blow up a satanic temple monument at the Illinois Capitol rotunda in order to 'make Americans aware of 'Pizzagate' and the New World Order (NWO), who were dismantling society.' "
  • The October 2016 arrests of two Georgia men, originally for drugs, who were discovered to be stockpiling guns, ammo, and tactical gear as preparation for an attack on a government radar-research station in Alaska they believe is manipulating the weather—a conspiracy theory long promoted by the Militia of Montana.

The memo is also remarkably astute in its assessment of the mechanics of conspiracist radicalization. Its definition of "conspiracy theory" may lack an esoteric component, but it is pragmatic and to the point: "an attempt to explain events or circumstances as the result of a group of actors working in secret to benefit themselves at the expense of others." It explains how they "typically allege wrongdoing by powerful others (for example, public officials, business executives, scientists) or societally marginalized groups (for example, Muslims, Jews), and are most prevalent among individuals with extreme political views."

It points directly to the aspect of conspiracism that gives it an unusual power to unhinge its believers: namely, the estrangement from factual reality.

Conspiracy theories typically "ignore stronger evidence that would refute their claims. Consequently, they are usually at odds with official or prevailing explanations of events."

"Relying on the premises that nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected, conspiracy theorists tend to view every bad outcome as the result of an intentional decision by an evil actor, dismiss disconfirming evidence as 'fabricated' by the conspirators, and connect a wide range of seemingly unrelated occurrences to suggest a larger plot," the memo explains.

"The danger," QAnon Anonymous podcast host Jake Rockatansky told Mother Jones, "is that you've got law enforcement who have a tremendous amount of responsibility who are showing complete disconnect from reality. They carry weapons. What happens if a police officer thinks that they've uncovered a pedophile ring?

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