Police leadership confronts far-right extremism in the ranks
American policymakers face a real conundrum when it comes to tackling the spread of right-wing extremism and its attendant terroristic violence, a problem that became self-evident amid the January 6 Capitol insurrection and its aftermath: How can law enforcement effectively curtail the illegal activities of right-wing extremists when so many officers are themselves participants in these movements?
The answer — which is that it cannot — suggests that effectively confronting far-right extremism must begin with police reform, and particularly the task of weeding extremists out of our police forces. The public cannot expect agencies tasked with enforcing the laws that prohibit extremist violence to do so seriously when those same extremists permeate their ranks.
The issue became self-evident when it emerged that some 31 law-enforcement officers in 12 states have been linked to the January 6 Capitol siege. Police departments around the country are now struggling with the enormity of the job, as the Los Angeles Times recently examined, focusing on the efforts of Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore to confront extremism within the force he oversees.
The most difficult aspect of the problem for police is the extent to which far-right views have been normalized within the mainstream, and particularly within the ranks of police officers. The issue gets to the heart of a police culture that has become increasingly penetrated by right-wing politics and is simultaneously hostile to accountability for its officers' behavior. When cops are also far-right extremists who engage in discriminatory policing, American police officials have a history of closing ranks and defending the status quo.
Moore, in an interview with the Times, voiced some of these cultural tensions when asked whether he would drum out officers who were found to be members of the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group. He at first suggested that the Proud Boys were part of a broad category of groups that included Black Lives Matter with which the public was still grappling.
"America is struggling today with understanding whether the Proud Boys, some aspects of BLM, other groups including Heritage Foundation and others, represent ideology that's counter to this democracy," Moore said. "What I know is that this democracy is made best when there is discussion and there's dialogue and debate."
However, he clarified that he personally considers the Proud Boys an organization that "runs counter to this democracy," and does not believe that "there is any place for a law enforcement officer to be a member of such organization or advocate for their existence."
Moore added that he is unaware of any Proud Boys or members of any other extremist group within the ranks of current LAPD officers, but is prepared to investigate any such claims, indicating he would fire anyone who "crosses the line" of what is acceptable.
LAPD officials were driven by last summer's anti-police-brutality protests, Moore said, to examine how best to comb their ranks for extremists and weed them out, suggesting they were especially motivated by the realization that the presence of such police would seriously undermine efforts to rebuild trust within the city's diverse neighborhoods. Moore rejected any suggestion that extremism was prevalent among his officers, noting that the LAPD is a diverse department, both ethnically and politically.
"What's really critical I believe going forward is for America to ... recognize extremes and have no place for them in this democracy, but also to recognize views that are different from their own and not vilify or call them extremist," Moore said.
Extremism within the ranks of law enforcement, however, is not just a community relations problem. Much more broadly, it also affects what laws are enforced and how. And it has a direct impact on the broader national effort to push back the incoming tide of white nationalist and other far-right extremist violence.
The primary problem with domestic terrorism in America is that our law-enforcement apparatus at every level—federal, state, and local—has failed to enforce the laws already on the books that provide them with more than enough ability to confront it. The ongoing presence of officers sympathetic to their cause—and for whom, in fact, their radical extremism is invisible—is one of the major proximate causes of this failure.
It is already, for example, a federal crime to share bomb-making recipes on the internet. It's also a federal crime to advocate the assassinations of public officials or to otherwise threaten them with violence. Yet what began as a few angry voices on the fringes of the internet—and thus easy for law-enforcement authorities to ignore—has grown into a massive flood in large part because these laws are only selectively and lightly enforced.
As Moustafa Bayoumi observed at The Nation:
[T]here is already plenty of prosecutorial power on the books to deal with far-right violence. The problem is not that we need to expand our laws. Rather, the problem is making sure we use our laws, and that we use them fairly, consistently, and to the full extent possible. The real scandal here is not the lack of a domestic terrorism statute. The real scandal is the free pass white supremacy has had from law enforcement for all these years.
National security expert Michael German of the Brennan Center for Justice, in a paper for Just Security, has explored in detail why new laws are not necessary to confront the problem. As he explains, the problem for federal law enforcement has not been a lack of tools to deal with domestic terrorism, but an utter lack of prioritization of the issue by high-level officials.
"While Justice Department officials have used notorious incidents of white supremacist violence to push for a new domestic terrorism statute, the Department itself continues to de-prioritize far-right violence and focus its most aggressive tactics instead against environmentalists, political protesters, and communities of color," he wrote. "It isn't hard to guess who would likely be targeted with new domestic terrorism laws."
The presence of ideologically sympathetic extremists within law enforcement also poses a security threat to any agency dealing with their criminal activities, particularly officers who keep any fascist affiliations secret and work to implement a far-right agenda from within the force.
"Police officers have access to sensitive information," explains associate Georgetown Law professor Vida Johnson. "For example, they might know if they're looking into the Proud Boys or the Three Percenters or the Oath Keepers, so they can tip them off. That's one reason why careers in law enforcement are so appealing to people who hold far-right belief systems. They get this opportunity to not only police people of color, to control their goings and comings and how they live their lives, but also they get this inside information about whether [far-right groups] are in fact being investigated."
American law enforcement has never systematically addressed the problem of extremism within its ranks, which historically speaking is not a new phenomenon at all, but has worsened dramatically in the past few decades. "It's clear that extremist groups on the right and white supremacists have been agents of chaos, of violence in our community, and the fact that police are just now interested in training on this, I find more than disturbing," Johnson told the Times.
Johnson, in a 2019 academic paper titled "KKK in the PD: White Supremacist Police and What to Do About It," found that police departments across the country exhibited evidence of white supremacist ideology, citing "scandals in over 100 different police departments, in over 40 different states, in which individual police officers have sent overtly racist emails, texts, or made racist comments via social media."
She observed to the Times it should be a cause for concern when officers become followers of such conspiracy theories as QAnon, or the claim that COVID-19 is a hoax, or theories that Trump's reelection was fraudulently stolen from him.
"People who can't separate fact from fiction probably shouldn't be the ones enforcing laws with guns," Johnson said.
Johnson has a roadmap for rooting extremists out of police departments: stricter and more diligent hiring practices, social media checks that could reveal extremist beliefs or organizational membership, periodic background checkups for all police veterans, and a review apparatus that is fully independent.
"They're supposed to be protecting and serving us," Johnson told Mother Jones. "But unfortunately it seems like a lot of departments see themselves at odds with or even at war with the rest of the community. That's a culture within policing that needs to change."
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