Far-right police officers have been serving all along — the Capitol riot just pointed them out

  • Several off-duty cops were found to be at the Capitol riot on January 6.
  • Three police experts told Insider they weren't surprised to see that.
  • Law-enforcement agents have long had ties to far-right groups, they said, which the riot only exposed.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

At a time when faith in American law enforcement was already at a record low, trust in the police was further shaken by the arrests of several off-duty police officers suspected to be involved in the deadly Capitol riot on January 6.

At least 31 officers in 12 states are currently being investigated over their suspected behavior in Washington, DC, according to the Associated Press. Some of them also face criminal charges for participating in the riot. 

They include Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson, two off-duty cops from Rocky Mount, Virginia, who were arrested after they took a selfie inside the Capitol and alluded to participating in the breach on social media. Officer Tam Pham, an 18-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, resigned after being charged in the riot.

The participation of all these police officers in the attack on the government has led many to wonder whether the police can be trusted with their core duty: to enforce the law.

Following the riot, Insider spoke to three experts on policing, who said they weren't surprised to learn that off-duty officers were involved in the storming of the Capitol.

They said the police have always had ties to far-right groups, and that the Capitol riot had merely exposed them.

They said Americans have a right to be concerned about some officers becoming radicalized, but steps can be taken to ensure that extremists don't continue to infiltrate police departments across the country.

Tarnishing police reputation 

All three experts noted that police officers have the same First Amendment rights to free speech as everyone else, but said that in joining the mob in storming the Capitol, the officers crossed a line. 

Thomas Nolan, a former police officer turned sociology professor, told Insider that it was an "aberration" that some off-duty cops joined the violence, facing off with fellow officers tasked with protecting the Capitol.

Among the five people who died in the riot was Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher.

"I was surprised that they were participating in the rioting and that they weren't reluctant to cause injury and to confront fellow officers," Nolan said.

Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the arrest of police officers at the riot does serious damage to "the police brand and the idea of police being neutral, even-handed enforcers of the law." 

"When they clearly portray themselves to have a position — particularly a radical position — understandably the public has doubts about them," Kenney told Insider. "That becomes problematic because the social contract that allows the police to do their job breaks down." 

Ties to right-wing movements

Elliot Currie, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, said "it's always surprising when you see people who were supposed to be defending the Constitution …. violating that in this very stark way."

He said, however, that "we have a long history of that kind of behavior both by police and former police" — a point both Kenney and Nolan agreed on. 

"This is nothing new," Nolan said. "Law-enforcement officers have a history of being associated with right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and right-wing militia groups. That goes back decades."

"In fact, in the early history of policing in the United States, there were strong associations with organizations like the Ku Klux Klan."

'Impunity' in the Trump era

While police associations with far-right groups may not be new, Kenney and Currie suggested that former President Donald Trump's embracing of these groups may have lifted the lid.

Currie said he thinks "the Trump era has probably" fueled police politicization, because Trump's apparent support for far-right movements gave officers with these political ideologies a sense of "impunity."

"I think we sometimes underestimate just how much it matters that people in the highest levels of authority are basically telling you it's OK, it's OK to do stuff you thought you weren't supposed to do," Currie said. 

Kenney said the fact that these officers are feeling "comfortable becoming more public" with their ideologies can even be seen as a good thing.

"It's something that police agencies and the military have promised to aggressively confront now, which is a positive thing," Kenney said.  

Read more: Trump tested the Constitution and shredded traditions. Biden and the Democrats have big plans of their own about what to do next.

Before President Joe Biden's inauguration, the FBI took the extra step of conducting a review of the 25,000 National Guardsmen who were deployed to protect the Capitol for the event.

Ultimately, 12 National Guardsmen were pulled from working the event, with at least two having suspected connections to far-right militias, according to the Associated Press.

Nolan said the FBI probably doesn't have "the capability" or "the inclination" to conduct a review of the nation's hundreds of thousands of police officers, but that it's possible to step up background checks on people applying to be officers to make sure they don't have ties to concerning groups.

"There have been public proclamations on the part of police administrators that there will be no place for officers who participate in riotous insurrections in the ranks of police officers," Nolan said. "So I think we're going to see some of these guys get fired for going down to DC and participating in that riot."

"I'm somewhat heartened by the exposure that's being brought to this issue and the willingness of police administrators — chiefs and police commissioners — to weed these officers out from their ranks because they don't belong in policing," he added.

Why police tend to be conservative

There are signs that the politicization of the police is a bigger issue than a couple dozen off-duty police officers taking part in a pro-Trump riot. 

Currie said there's evidence that police politicization has "increased and intensified in the Trump era," pointing to police unions endorsing Trump, given that political endorsements by police unions were somewhat rare until recently.

Nolan said that in his experience, "the majority of police officers are politically conservative." 

Currie agreed, saying part of this has to do with the people who apply to be police officers already being "pretty conservative people." 

What officers experience on the job also tends to push them further to the right, Nolan said.

Despite consistently falling violent crime numbers in the US, Nolan said that officers believe they are dealing with an "onslaught of violent crime" and that leads them to believe they are playing a crucial role as "the thin blue line between order and anarchy."

For this reason, they would naturally tend to side with conservatives who echo these beliefs, as opposed to progressives who call for more checks on police power and authority.

'Don't we pay you to enforce the laws?'

Currie said one of the things he finds "very troubling" is the recent trend of some sheriffs' saying they're "not going to enforce certain laws if they don't like those laws."

A recent example of this was when Sheriff Richard Giardino of Fulton County, New York — a Republican — said he would not enforce the governor's order to limit Thanksgiving gatherings in the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: I was in DC for the inauguration. The overwhelming security state felt disturbingly similar to the worst parts of the post-9/11 response.

"Deciding that you're not going to enforce regulations around COVID-19 because you don't believe government should be doing that … well, one could reasonably say: 'How do you as a sheriff decide you're not going to do that? Don't we pay you to enforce the laws?'" Currie said. 

The Capitol riot also shows the consequences of police politicization in a more "subtle" way, Currie said, in the way that the rioters were treated by Capitol Police compared to the Black Lives Matter protesters this summer. 

"Many commentators have pointed out that … if a crowd of BLM supporters had descended upon the Capitol building, it would have been a very different response, and I think that's correct," he said.

"The fact that you didn't see that when it was a mostly white crowd is very revealing about the sort of fundamental political world view that many police have."

"It's a vision of who's dangerous and who's not in our society," he said. "In this case, that's very much divided along racial lines."

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