The January 6 deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol has renewed attention to what has long been an open secret in police departments across the country -- right wing extremists populating their ranks.
For years, even as experts warned about the growing dangers of extremism in police departments, many police chiefs brushed the concern aside as a social media nuisance.
Now, in the wake of revelations that dozens of current and former law enforcement officers, firefighters and military personnel may have taken part in the January 6 riot, police leaders are being forced to own up to the problem.
Five people died in the assault, including a Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, who was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher thrown by a rioter, while many other police officers were injured. Former President Donald Trump is facing an impeachment trial in the Senate on charges of inciting an insurrection of his supporters at the Capitol to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election.
At least 30 police officers from more than a dozen states, ranging from Virginia and Pennsylvania to Oklahoma and California, are being investigated by their superiors for their conduct in Washington, or face criminal charges for taking part in the rioting at the Capitol.
“The biggest fault of law enforcement has been viewing the extremism language of fellow law enforcement officers and viewing it as freedom of speech instead of seeing that that language, those comments, actually chisel away at the democracy of America,” said David Mahoney, the sheriff in Dane County, Wisconsin, who is president of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Last Tuesday, as federal agents moved to charge a Houston Police Department officer in connection with the Capitol rioting, Chief Art Acevedo delivered a blunt warning to a group of cadets.
“If anyone in this room right now believes that anyone needed to be in the Capitol building, you need to check out,” Acevedo said. “You will not survive in this department with that mindset.”
Involvement in US Capitol riot
The same day, Tam Pham, an 18-year veteran of the Houston Police force, was charged with two counts of illegally entering the Capitol building and engaging in disruptive conduct.
Pham initially told federal agents that he and his wife had traveled to Washington on business and while he attended a Trump rally on the morning of January 6 near the White House, he did not enter the Capitol.
But his story changed after agents searching his cell phone found selfies of him inside the building. One showed Pham standing next to a statute of President Gerald Ford draped in a Trump flag as rioters roamed through the building.
Nicole DeBorde, Pham’s attorney, told VOA that the former police officer “very much regrets being present at all and very much wants to disassociate himself in every way from the domestic terrorists who attacked the Capitol on January the 6th.”
Pham is one of at least six current or former law enforcement officers charged so far by federal prosecutors for storming the Capitol and committing other crimes.
Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson, two off-duty cops from Rocky Mount, Virginia, allegedly traveled more than 320 kilometers to take part in the assault on the Capitol.
Like many other rioters, the two military veterans took selfies during the rampage and posted them on social media. One was taken in front of a statue of Revolutionary War hero John Stark in the Capitol’s crypt. On Instagram, Robertson wrote that the picture “shows 2 men willing to actually put skin in the game and stand up for their rights,” according to court papers.
In another social media post, Robertson wrote that “we actually attacked the government who is the problem and not some random small business.”
Fracker and Robertson could not be reached for comment. Neither has a lawyer listed in court documents.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Researcher Forum, said a “line was crossed” when members of law enforcement took matters into their own hands.
“The nature of demonstrating went from simply protesting or expressing their views to engaging in riotous behavior, so that's made an impression on police chiefs across the country,” Wexler said.
So far, the FBI has charged more than 150 rioters and is investigating hundreds more. But the number of current and former law enforcement officers who took part in the riot remains unknown.
According to a database maintained by Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a PhD student at Columbia University, at least 39 law enforcement officers from 18 states attended the Jan. 6 Trump rally that sparked the attack on the Capitol. Trump repeated his false claim that he had won reelection in November and urged the crowd to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”
The list includes a local police chief from New Hampshire, a local sheriff from Oklahoma and an elected local prosecutor from Indiana. Most are under internal investigation as police officials seek to determine if any took part in the riot.
In their defense, some have said they marched to the Capitol but did not enter the building. Mahoney said that is no excuse.
“If you marched to the Capitol and did not place yourself in a position to prevent people from entering our Capitol, you're guilty just as those who entered that Capitol were,” Mahoney said in an interview.
In addition to local law enforcement officers, more than a dozen members of U.S. Capitol Police are under investigation for their role in the riots. At least two have been suspended. One Capitol Police officer allegedly took a selfie with a rioter inside the building. Another was seen donning a “Make America Great Again” hat while directing the mob inside the building.
The Capitol Police did not respond to a request for comment on the ongoing investigation.
Ties with extremist groups
While none of the local police officers who took part in the riots has been linked to any known extremist organization, far-right groups that recruit members of law enforcement and the military had dozens of members leading the mob. Among them were members of two anti-government militia groups known as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
Last week, federal prosecutors brought conspiracy charges against three prominent members of the Oath Keepers in a case that highlights their role in orchestrating the Capitol attack days in advance. On the Parler social media site, Jessica Watkins, an Army veteran, wrote, “We stormed the Capitol today. Teargassed, the whole, 9. Pushed our way into the Rotunda. Made it into the Senate even.”
Watkins could not be reached for comment.
American police departments are no strangers to far-right extremism. As far back as the early 20th century, members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan infiltrated many police departments, terrorizing the very communities law enforcement was supposed to protect, according to experts.
With the rise of anti-government militias in recent years, concern about extremist infiltration of law enforcement has grown. In a 2015 policy guide, the FBI warned that its investigations of far-right groups had uncovered “active links” to law enforcement officers.
Need for a national strategy
Yet while the FBI views domestic terrorism as a major threat, the Justice Department has failed to develop a national strategy to combat the threat of white supremacy in police departments, according to former FBI special agent Michael German.
“If the government knew that al-Qaida or ISIS had infiltrated American law enforcement agencies, it would undoubtedly initiate a nationwide effort to identify them and neutralize the threat they posed,” German said during a congressional hearing in September, using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group.
A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a question about whether the agency has a national strategy for combating extremist infiltration of local police departments.
Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin said the Justice Department will prosecute all those responsible for the riots, law enforcement officers included.
“We don't care what your profession is, who you are, who you're affiliated with. If you were conducting or engaged in criminal activity, we will charge you and you will be arrested,” Sherwin told reporters on January 15.
Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor and author of a book about the Oath Keepers, said the group is unlikely to disband given that it sees itself as an organization protected by the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution.
“Any attempt to go underground would be driven by legal concerns per se, and perhaps more by people being less willing perhaps to be openly identified with people who were involved in the January 6th insurrection,” Jackson said.
Amy Cooter, a sociology lecturer and militia expert at Vanderbilt University, noted that militia activity tends to decline under Republican administrations because members view the party as more sympathetic to their concerns about gun rights and other issues.
“But instead of kind of calming down those fears, Trump instead played them up [and] made them feel like they were even more urgent and more legitimate, so it became a bit of a tinderbox and more easy for them to take a public space,” Cooter said.