The number is thirty so far, thirty police officers charged with the act of participating in the Capitol insurrection last January. Many, many Americans felt shock, and media analysts expressed particular outrage, to find men in blue—perhaps even waving blue-line, “support the police” flags—willing to overturn 2020 election results and threaten lawmakers, Democratic and Republican alike, pillage federal property, and assault other police defending the Capitol.
But why exactly the surprise? The problems of racist policing have been acutely obvious in the wake of the merciless murder of George Floyd and other unarmed people of color in recent years and in the aggressive police responses to many of the protests that followed. Talk of reforms to address unconscious racism within police ranks have followed or are currently under discussion. But the problem highlighted on January 6 is about conscious racism and how it may be both a pathway to and interconnected with violently anti-democratic extremism.
The links between police and organized racism go back far in American history, from the origins of many police departments in patrol systems designed to return runaway slaves to their masters, to the close interconnections between the Ku Klux Klan and local police personnel from the Reconstruction down through the modern civil rights era. But while this history may seem old news to some, the reality is ties between law enforcement and the far right have endured down through the twenty-first century.
The Known and the Ignored
Going back as far as 2006, and then in 2015 and now 2021, the FBI has confirmed not only that white supremacist and anti-government groups accounted for more fatalities than any other category of “domestic terrorism,” but that many of these groups have active links to the police.
Indeed, right-wing extremist organizations have very deliberately tried to expand their reach into law enforcement and the military, not least because those ranks are composed of individuals with access to and knowledge of weaponry, some of it quite sophisticated given the widespread militarization of police departments, as well as knowledge of internal plans for crowd control and protest response. In addition, the widespread public criticism of police in the wake of excessive use of force and unjustifiable killings have created a sense of grievance among some officers that provides a field ripe for recruitment.
Yet as these reports also confirm, recruitment is not the only door to linkages. Based on investigations between 2016 and 2020, a just-released 2021 FBI report out of the San Antonio unit demonstrates that many far-right groups have increased efforts to have members join law enforcement agencies; and that “lone wolf” individuals increasingly join precisely because they want to commit acts of violence against immigrants and people of color.
Perhaps the most extensive investigation of the recent era of infiltration comes from a 2020 Brennan Center for Justice report written by former FBI agent Michael German. German notes that even without access to classified intelligence, evidence of infiltration is easy to come by. Since 2000 individuals linked to extremist groups have been uncovered in police departments in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. In over fifteen separate news stories, investigative reporters have unearthed hundreds of instances of law enforcement personnel from federal, state, and local agencies posting racist, anti-immigrant, and sexist material on social media.
Extensive and chilling as the evidence is, the response from law enforcement leaders has been underwhelming. That the Trump Administration blocked the FBI from efforts to redress the problem is hardly surprising, given how much support Trump derived from right-wing extremist groups. But the Obama Administration was also remiss, even given that a marked surge in extremist groups’ membership and activities coincided with Obama’s election.
The January 6 insurrection is but one example of the dangers of failing to combat far-right extremism. Beyond how extremist police officers obviously threaten the lives and welfare of communities of color, immigrants, and others, these individuals effectively damage the reputation, legitimacy, and perceived fairness of policing and the legal system, already suspect in many quarters. Furthermore, as seen in the Capitol insurrection , the health and welfare of police officers themselves is at stake. German points out that far-right extremist groups are a lethal threat to law enforcement. He cites, for example, recent attacks against Federal Protective Service officers and sheriff’s deputies in California by militants hoping to initiate the “boogaloo” —a new civil war—resulted in two dead and several injuries.
To say the least, having far-right extremists in the ranks hardly fosters cohesion and trust within police forces. In an anonymous interview in the Washington Post, a black Capitol Police officer commenting on the January 6 insurrection pointedly observed that racism within the ranks remains the “elephant in the room.”
Where Do We Go from Here
In postmortems following the insurrection, including Congressional hearings, the problem of infiltration has at last garnered, at least near-term, the attention it demands. Among potential responses are immediate and swift disciplinary responses to police found to have extremist ties or who have been linked to acts of racist violence. In addition to referral to prosecutors where appropriate, immediate dismissal, effectively bypassing union contract protections, has been proposed. Also, prosecutors should add the names of offending officers to “Brady lists” of unsuitable officers that are shared with federal, state and local prosecutors’ offices to avoid the possibility of their being rehired in other locales.
The FBI’s civil rights division should make training and related resources available to state and local law enforcement agencies on how to identify signs of extremist ties among their officers. As much as possible, this training should address the “blue wall of silence” within police culture, which allows observed deviant behavior within the ranks to go unreported by fellow officers. Recognizing that too often department leaders turn a blind eye to evidence of infiltration, monitoring by the civil rights division of state and local departmental efforts to identify and contain extremism is also in order.
Finally, there is the question of intensive background checks of potential hires, which should now include any evidence of extremist leanings, from tattoos to social media posts. Periodic review of current employees for similar problematic signs must also be considered.
Background checks are a good place to start examining how the Urbana and Champaign police departments are addressing this issue. A review of public documents posted by these departments found no material suggesting that specific policies have been developed in this area. The Champaign department does publish a fairly detailed list of the categories of behavior that come under review for new hires, but no mention of links to far-right organizations is mentioned. Admittedly this review is superficial, but certainly as further discussions of police reform move forward in the Champaign-Urbana area, the question of far-right infiltration must be on the agenda.