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After Capitol riot, police chiefs work to root out officers with ties to extremist groups

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/25/2021 Kimberly Kindy, Mark Berman, Kim Bellware

The revelation that the Capitol mob — covered in emblems of extremist groups — included off-duty law enforcement officers possibly assisted by working police is escalating pressure on sheriffs and police chiefs nationwide to root out staff with ties to white supremacist and far-right armed groups.

Law enforcement leaders have faced criticism in the past for failing to police their own officers’ involvement with extremist groups. However, the selfie photos that off-duty officers took inside the Capitol during the violent siege, which left one police officer dead and dozens of others injured, were a wake-up call for many who have long denied the extent of the problem within policing.

National Sheriffs’ Association President David Mahoney said many police leaders have treated officers with extremist beliefs as outliers and have underestimated the damage they can inflict on the profession and the nation.

“We saw the anti-government, anti-equality and racist comments coming out during the Obama administration. Shame on us for representing it as freedom of speech and for not recognizing it was chiseling away at our democracy,” Mahoney said in an interview. “As we move forward, we need to make sure we are teaching our current staff members that they must have the courage to speak out when they know about another deputy’s or officer’s involvement. There should be no reference to the thin blue line.”

The Capitol riot came as law enforcement officials already face a tense national landscape following last year’s protests against policing, calls to cut their funding and a broader reckoning on racial injustice. Then the mob stormed the Capitol, prompting criticism about how police treated the largely White crowd and then anger when allegations emerged that officers were among their ranks.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Rioters clash with police outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. © Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post Rioters clash with police outside the Capitol on Jan. 6.

More than a dozen off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the Jan. 6 mob and are under investigation, according to a Washington Post analysis using news accounts and police and FBI reports. At least a dozen Capitol Police officers are also under investigation for possibly playing a role in the rioting by assisting or encouraging the mob.

Another 14 off-duty officers, who do not appear to have entered the Capitol, attended the preceding rally held by then-President Donald Trump that was advertised by extremist groups on social media. The event drew tens of thousands to Washington to fight the election results that made Joe Biden the 46th U.S. president. Local and federal law enforcement warned in the run-up that it could lead to violence.

Law enforcement leaders across the nation are talking to cadets and veteran officers about the need to report colleagues who have aligned themselves with white supremacists or far-right militants. The leaders are considering policies that would expressly prohibit officers from affiliating with such groups.

They are also discussing ways to conduct deeper background checks on recruits, so such extremists are blocked from entering the profession. Some police experts suggest hiring outside experts to help scour social media sites.

The FBI, they say, could also play a greater role in helping to identify and remove local law enforcement officers with ties to extremists by making better use of intelligence gathered from its own investigations.

“They know who these bad apples are,’’ said Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked domestic terrorism cases. “They learn about them when they are investigating white supremacists and militia groups.”

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However, legal experts and police watchdogs said they are wary of the promise for change. Many in law enforcement have committed to similar reforms in the past after police killed Black Americans, including the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and last year’s fatal choking of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“These officers are hiding in plain sight, and law enforcement is so reluctant to do anything about it,” Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University, said. “And until they’re willing to . . . discipline officers, this is going to continue to be a problem, and it’s one that’s completely destabilizing the country and putting us at risk.”

Johnson also pointed to the legal obstacles unions can present when police chiefs attempt to discipline or fire officers for misconduct. Efforts to remove officers are routinely challenged by unions and resolved by arbitrators who often are reluctant to deviate from the history of how sheriff and police departments have dealt with members who have been affiliated with these groups.

a man wearing a hat: A Capitol Police officer wears a black band over his badge near the Capitol security perimeter Jan. 20 after President Biden was sworn in. © Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post A Capitol Police officer wears a black band over his badge near the Capitol security perimeter Jan. 20 after President Biden was sworn in.

Focus on hiring

Art Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the attack on the Capitol may make the task of firing officers with such affiliations easier but agrees with union leaders that the greatest success could come from blocking them from ever becoming a part of the force.

He is heartened that recruits are getting the message.

“A brand new cadet, first week in the academy, openly bragged that they were part of the Aryan Brotherhood. Another cadet notified us. That is how emboldened some of these folks are right now,” Acevedo, who is police chief at the Houston Police Department, said. “Needless to say, this cadet is no longer with us. We are looking to see what we failed to check before he entered the academy.”

On Tuesday, Acevedo paced in front of a group of cadets on their first day of the academy, shouting about his anger over the riot in the Capitol like a preacher at a tent revival.

He asked if they had heard about Tam Dinh Pham, a former Houston police officer who allegedly joined the violent mob that entered the Capitol and was charged recently with federal crimes by the Justice Department.

In a fiery call and response that was posted on Twitter days later, Acevedo warned the cadets that such conduct will not be tolerated.

“If anyone in this room right now believes that anyone needed to be in that Capitol building, they need to check out now! Understand me?”

“Yes sir!”

“You will not survive in this department with that mind-set. You understand that?”

“ Yes sir!”

“Is there room for hate?”

“No sir!”

“Is there room for discrimination?”

“No sir!”

“Is there room for militia in this department or any other police department?”

“No sir!”

Acevedo’s voice lowered, telling the cadets this was something “I had to get off my chest.”

“I think we are all pretty pissed off right now that we have cops thinking it’s okay to storm our nation’s Capitol,” he said. “Those people are absolute traitors to our nation, to our oath of office.”

According to an FBI affidavit, Pham told agents that he went to the rally because he wanted to “see history” and eventually climbed over barricades and went into the Capitol. Acevedo learned of Pham’s actions through an anonymous tip he received via email the day after the riot. Acevedo said they have found no evidence of Pham being part of a hate or armed group, but the investigation is ongoing. The Post has been unable to reach Pham for comment.

Acevedo said his department does a thorough job of looking for such affiliations among officers but acknowledged that such efforts are uneven among the 18,000 police departments in the nation, which function autonomously.

a person holding a gun: Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks outside of the Fountain of Praise Church in Texas before George Floyd's funeral June 9. © Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks outside of the Fountain of Praise Church in Texas before George Floyd's funeral June 9.

Acevedo also said anonymous online platforms on the “dark web” are making such investigations impossible, even for departments with sufficient resources. He expects the move away from public platforms like Facebook and Twitter to grow rapidly in response to the FBI arrests of those who rioted at the Capitol.

This month, Acevedo was asked by the House Oversight and Reform Committee to explain what actions police chiefs are taking, and responded by asking for help. For years, law enforcement officials have asked for passage of a federal law that would require such platforms to have a “back door” that law enforcement can access if they have “a legitimate investigative need and a court order” to gain entry.

“Congress’s failure to act has enabled industry giants to flaunt the law and operate with impunity,” Acevedo wrote in response.

This debate over encryption has simmered for years, with privacy advocates and technology executives defending encryption as a necessary protection and arguing that giving law enforcement these back doors would weaken security overall.

The degree to which white supremacist and far-right armed groups have otherwise infiltrated police and sheriff departments is unknown. Johnson, the law professor at Georgetown University, said it is “the million dollar question.”

Lynda R. Williams, national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said she was “sad and disappointed” but not surprised to learn police were allegedly among the Capitol rioters.

“That just goes to show: We all put on our badge, but you really don’t know the person that’s besides you,” said Williams, a former deputy assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service. “In 30 years of law enforcement, any time I needed backup or assistance . . . the last thing I wanted to be concerned about was if this person has my back.”

Black officers around the country are “absolutely” looking around their departments and wondering what they might not know about the people they work with and their viewpoints, she said.

“In law enforcement, we see things through a different lens,” Williams said. “Now it’s giving you another thought that you never had to think about, like, ‘Could he? Could she? Are they?’”

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he does not view extremism among police as a widespread problem but believes better screening of job candidates is warranted. For veteran officers, more robust and confidential mental health services are needed, he said, so officers do not become easy recruiting targets for the groups.

“Most of us have one or two traumatic events in our life. Officers can have 60 or 70. We really need to recognize the stresses of this job,” Yoes said.

a man wearing a hat: Acevedo is seen outside of the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston before George Floyd's funeral June 9. © Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post Acevedo is seen outside of the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston before George Floyd's funeral June 9.

Speech boundaries

Police departments that are able to root out these rogue officers have a difficult challenge in deciding where to draw the line on officer expression, said Will Aitchison, a labor and employment attorney based in Portland, Ore., who primarily represents law enforcement in labor negotiations.

“It’s a bit of a more subtle one than most people are thinking: The challenge is going to be regulating what can constitutionally be regulated but not going so far as to violate the officers’ free speech,” Aitchison told The Post.

Aitchison said most officers, and even police unions, would probably welcome revisions to departmental policy when it comes to what kind of expression is permitted versus punishable.

Over the last several years, departments around the country have struggled to define the boundaries around speech — including tattoos, social media posts and group membership — that community members view as objectionable or as evidence of bias but nonetheless protected.

In 2016, Ian Hans Lichterman, a Philadelphia police officer, caused an uproar when he was photographed in his short-sleeved patrol uniform that prominently showed his forearm tattoos that resembled Nazi imagery.

He was cleared of wrongdoing since the department didn’t have a tattoo policy on the books. The city later crafted one that banned “offensive, extremist, indecent, racist and sexist tattoos on any part of the body” over the police union’s objections.

Lichterman and the Philadelphia Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Last year, the Sanford Police Department in North Carolina parted ways with an officer after an anonymous Twitter account published social media posts that indicated the officer, Michael Lankford, was part of a pro-Confederacy group.

Lankford could not be reached for comment, and the Sanford Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In some cases, officers have turned in their own for making blatant threats.

The night of the Capitol siege, a sheriff’s deputy in Florida’s Polk County, angered by police fatally shooting someone in the mob, texted a colleague that they needed to “make the streets of D.C. run red with the blood of the tyrants” and “kill them all,” Sheriff Grady Judd said. The colleague reported the exchange, and the deputy was charged with making written threats to kill.

“You can’t police a society if you don’t first police yourselves,” Judd said. “Words matter, and threatening words to hurt, to kill, are not acceptable.”

a sign on the side of a building: Police tape surround the newly fenced-in Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 12. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Police tape surround the newly fenced-in Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 12.

Razzan Nakhlawi, Rachel Weiner, Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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