Last fall, an anonymous hacker leaked a list of almost 40,000 past and present members of the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that often recruits military and police personnel. Reporters at NPR and WNYC/Gothamist scoured the data and ran the apparent members logs against rosters of active police officers in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.
The concern about potential violent extremism among police officers extends well beyond the Oath Keepers membership roster.
Now, an investigative report Friday by those same reporters reveals what many have long suspected: Active-duty police officers in some of our country’s largest departments are members of the Oath Keepers, which is also now under increased scrutiny for some members’ roles in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. At least 18 Oath Keepers associates, including the head of the militia organization, have been charged in the Capitol assault.
The Chicago Police Department was found to have 13 active employees on the Oath Keepers membership list. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had at least three active-duty deputies. And at least two active NYPD officers appeared on the list. The investigative work by this joint team of journalists to identify current cops in specific departments raises two questions about radicalization in the ranks: How did we get here, and what do we do about it?
The concern about potential violent extremism among police officers extends well beyond the Oath Keepers membership roster. This isn’t the first time that credible accusations of radicalization have been made against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Two recent reports from Loyola Law School and the RAND Corp. detail the problems in that agency. As noted in the work by NPR and WNYC/Gothamist:
“Those reports found a significant portion of Sheriff's Deputies have participated in subgroups, which have been accused of violent attacks and racial discrimination over decades. The reports specifically note one group active in the Compton, Calif., station known as 'The Executioners,' whose members have a tattoo resembling a skeleton wearing a Nazi helmet. According to the RAND Corporation report, which was commissioned by county officials, a whistleblower alleged that 'the Executioners encouraged shootings of civilians and had assaulted at least one other deputy at the station.'"
The same leaked Oath Keepers data also exposed that dozens of police officers in Oregon had paid dues to the Oath Keepers. Ed Mullins, until recently the head of the NYPD’s police union, had been known to give TV interviews on Fox with a QAnon coffee mug displayed in his office. Earlier this year, NYPD Deputy Inspector James Kobel resigned when an investigation concluded he was the author of racist online posts on a department message board. And white supremacy ideology has surfaced in multiple other departments.
How did radical, even violent, extremism infiltrate the ranks of departments across the country? While racism, extremism and bias in policing aren’t new phenomena, this current conduct has surfaced with startling brazenness. At least three factors contributed to a perfect storm of dangerously polarized policing:
First, President Donald Trump strategically cultivated cops in his bid to win and maintain power by recruiting those who already wielded it. “Cops for Trump” rallies, often led by then-Vice President Mike Pence, played out in packed venues across the country, including one where Pence warned officers that they “won’t be safe” if Joe Biden were elected president. Trump also promoted the false notion that only his supporters were defenders of police, which caused most police unions, including the country’s largest, to endorse Trump for president.
Counter-radicalization of police officers won’t be easy, but it can be done.
Second, the violent summer of 2020, triggered by the murder of George Floyd and the routine excessive use of force by police, led to civil unrest. Those nationwide protests didn’t just require protracted police presences — the protests were aimed at the police themselves. While most Americans were validly questioning and appalled by the police brutality in the Floyd case, over 2,000 police officers were injured by protesters. To police, the violence against them became a self-fulfilling MAGA prophecy — caused not by their own colleagues’ misconduct but, as they were led to believe, by far-left liberals and minorities intent on destroying the country.
Third, the “defund the police” movement was the wrong branding at precisely the worst time in terms of police perceiving that they, indeed, lived in an “us versus them” society. In fact, it wasn’t just the police who bristled at the notion that their agency budgets could be slashed and their jobs reassigned. In Minneapolis, voters last week rejected a proposal to abolish the police department and turn it into a reshaped public safety agency. But for many officers, the radicalization process had already happened.
Counter-radicalization of police officers won’t be easy, but it can be done. The answer isn’t to defund the police, because, in reality, corrective measures are likely to require increased budgets. Those measures must include changing the way police candidates are recruited. Targeted recruitment of college-educated, proven problem solvers, from a wide variety of academic, cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds, will take more money, not less. Enhanced screening and vetting, including polygraphs and social media analysis, to identify and weed out those applicants more likely to default to physicality over verbal de-escalation or to act upon biases and violent ideologies, can be accomplished — but again, it will cost more, not less. Such vetting and background investigation can’t end with the application process but rather must be systematically incorporated throughout officers’ careers.
Applicant interview panels that include diverse citizen representation are already used in some progressive departments but should become standard. And training in civil rights, de-escalation techniques and cultural awareness must extend beyond academy graduation. Again, this all requires more funding, not defunding. Last, steps must be taken to break the chokehold that police unions have on change and progress. Union objectives should shift from preserving the status quo to improving how officers are equipped to better protect their communities. That means pushing back against mandatory union sign-offs on promotions and career panels, even if it means taking the unions to court.
Getting all of this right will take persistence, time and money. It’s not about defunding the police or abolishing the police; it’s about reimagining the police.