The New York Time – Opinion
Extremists in Uniform Put the Nation at Risk
The Editorial Board – Nov. 13, 2022
This editorial is the second in a series, “The Danger Within,” urging readers to understand the danger of extremist violence and possible solutions. Read more about the series in a note from Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times Opinion editor.
On May 29, 2020, Steven Carrillo decided that his moment to take up arms against the government had arrived.
It was a Friday in downtown Oakland, Calif., and at 9:44 p.m., Mr. Carrillo opened the sliding door of a white van and, according to court documents, opened fire with a rifle at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building and courthouse. Officer David Patrick Underwood was killed inside a guard booth, and his partner was seriously injured. The van sped away into the night.
About a week later, Mr. Carrillo, who was tied to the antigovernment paramilitary boogaloo movement, was arrested after he ambushed and murdered a police officer and wounded several others with homemade explosives and an assault rifle in another attack some 60 miles away. Mr. Carrillo wasn’t just linked to an antigovernment paramilitary group; he was also an active-duty sergeant in the Air Force. This summer, he was sentenced to 41 years in prison for attacking agents of the government he’d sworn to protect and defend.
There has been a steady rise in political violence in the United States — from harassment of election workers and public officials to the targeting of a Supreme Court justice to an attack on the husband of the speaker of the House of Representatives and, of course, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. An alarming number of Americans say that political violence is usually or always justified, and this greater tolerance for violence is a direct threat to democratic governance.
America needs to reduce this threat. In recent years, the majority of political violence has come at the hands of members of right-wing extremist groups or unaffiliated adherents of their white supremacist and antigovernment ideologies. This editorial board argued in the first of this series that better enforcement of state and federal laws banning private paramilitary activity could help dismantle some of the groups at the vanguard of this violence.
One of the most troubling facts about adherents of extremist movements is that veterans, active-duty military personnel and members of law enforcement are overrepresented. One estimate, published in The Times in 2020, found that at least 25 percent of members of extremist paramilitary groups have a military background.
Still, only a tiny number of veterans or members of the active-duty military or law enforcement will ever join an extremist group. Their overrepresentation is partly due to extremist groups focusing on recruiting from these populations because of their skills. But the presence of these elements within the ranks of law enforcement is cause for extra concern. Of the more than 900 people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attacks, 135 had military or law enforcement backgrounds. The Program on Extremism at George Washington University found that among those in policing, 18 are retired, and six are active. One Capitol Police officer who was not on the scene that day but was aware of the attack later advised a participant on how to avoid being caught.
For decades, police departments, the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have known about the problem, yet they have made only halting progress in rooting out extremists in the ranks.
Jan. 6 changed that. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was so alarmed by the events of that day that he ordered all military commands to reinforce existing regulations prohibiting extremist activity and to query service members about their views on the extent of the problem. The Defense Department standardized its screening questionnaires for recruits and changed its social media policies, so that liking or reposting white nationalist and extremist content would be considered the same as advocating it. Service members could face disciplinary action for doing so. The department also began preparing retiring members to avoid being recruited by extremist groups.
But those reforms were more easily ordered than executed. A department inspector general report released this year found that the Pentagon’s sprawling bureaucracy was unable to identify the scope of the problem across the services because it used numerous reporting systems that were not interconnected. Commanders often didn’t have a clear understanding of what was prohibited. As a result, the department “cannot fully implement policy and procedures to address extremist activity without clarifying the definitions of ‘extremism,’ ‘extremist,’ ‘active advocacy’ and ‘active participation,’” the report concluded.
After 20 years of the war on terrorism, the country is now seeing many veterans joining extremist groups like the Proud Boys.
The end of wars and the return of the disillusioned veterans they can produce have often been followed by a spike in extremism. The white power movement grew after the end of the Vietnam War, with veterans often playing leading roles. Antigovernment activity climbed in the 1990s after the first Iraq war, culminating in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran who had served in Operation Desert Storm. “These groups can give disaffected veterans a sense of purpose, camaraderie, community once they leave military service,” said Cassie Miller, an extremism researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2012, Andrew Turner ended his nine-year Navy career at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with a shattered hand and loathing of the government. He’d served around the world, from South Korea to Iraq, and the experience had left him disabled and furious. “When the military was done with me, they threw me on a heap. I took it personally and was so angry,” he said in an interview.
In 2013 a fellow service member suggested that he check out a group called the Oath Keepers. Mr. Turner, then 39, joined the Maryland chapter, paid his dues and “initially felt that esprit de corps that I’d missed from the military,” he said. He felt a bond and even spent time with the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, who is currently on trial and charged with seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 attacks. (Mr. Rhodes has denied ordering the group to attack the Capitol and stop the certification of the 2020 election results, as the government contends.) There’s a photo of them at the World War II Memorial in Washington, holding an Oath Keepers banner.
But Mr. Turner soon realized that the group was not the apolitical, service-oriented veterans’ association he thought it to be. In private online forums, discussions were full of racist language, and members flirted with violence. He walked away after six months. “It’s easy to find vulnerable people at their weakest moments. I was naïve, but if anyone joins the Oath Keepers today, they know exactly what they’re getting into,” he said.
Experts in the field recommend some basic steps the military should take that could make a difference. Better training, counseling and discussion of the true nature of extremism are vital and must start long before service members retire and need to continue after they do. Better staff training and better funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs are also critical to meeting this challenge, so that members who are struggling can be coaxed down a different path.
While the military can exert fairly strict control over men and women in uniform, civilian law enforcement agencies face a different set of challenges in addressing extremists or extremist sympathizers in the ranks.
At least 24 current and former police officers have been charged with crimes in relation to the Jan. 6 attacks, and dozens of others have been identified as part of the crowd at the Capitol. Some officers who participated wanted things to go further than they did. “Kill them all,” Peter Heneen, a sheriff’s deputy in Florida, texted another deputy during the attack. The streets of the capital, he wrote, needed to “run red with the blood of these tyrants.”
Experts who track the tactics of extremist movements have been sounding the klaxon about the growing presence of antigovernment and white supremacist groups in law enforcement for years. “Although white supremacist groups have historically engaged in strategic efforts to infiltrate and recruit from law enforcement communities, current reporting on attempts reflects self-initiated efforts by individuals, particularly among those already within law enforcement ranks, to volunteer their professional resources to white supremacist causes with which they sympathize,” an F.B.I. intelligence assessment concluded in 2006.
Last year a leaked membership roster of the Oath Keepers, a violent paramilitary group involved in the Jan. 6 attacks that recruits police officers and military personnel, included some 370 members of law enforcement and more than 100 members of the military, according to an Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism analysis. An investigation by Reuters this year found that several police trainers around the country — who together have trained hundreds of officers — belong to extremist paramilitary groups or expressed sympathy for their ideas. One trainer, for instance, posted on social media that government officials disloyal to Donald Trump should be executed and that the country was on the brink of civil war.
A recent investigation by the Marshall Project found that hundreds of sheriffs nationwide are part of or are sympathetic to the ideas behind the constitutional sheriffs movement, which holds that sheriffs are above state and federal law and are not required to accept gun laws, enforce Covid restrictions or investigate election results. The Anti-Defamation League describes the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association as an “antigovernment extremist group whose primary purpose is to recruit sheriffs into the antigovernment ‘patriot’ movement.”
Identifying members of extremist groups and those sympathetic to their ideology to make sure they don’t join the thin blue line in the first place should be a priority for departments and governments nationwide. Yet most departments don’t have explicit prohibitions on officers joining extremist paramilitary groups, according to a 2020 study by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Since Jan. 6, however, some states have successfully pushed for reforms. This fall, California passed a law that requires law enforcement agencies to screen candidates for participation in groups that promote hate crimes or genocide. In April, Minnesota’s police officer standards board proposed a series of rule changes, including barring people who belong to or support extremist groups from getting a law enforcement license. Public hearings, which are set to be held on those changes, deserve support. Other states and communities should look closely at these measures as a model.
Prosecutors in communities all over the United States also have a powerful tool already at their disposal: cross-examination during criminal trial. All defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to know about potentially exculpatory evidence. If an arresting officer is a member of a hate group or expresses extremist beliefs, that should be a subject of cross-examination by the defense.
If prosecutors were more aggressive about vetting police officers for extremist views, “defendants will get fairer trials, the public will be informed of problem officers through public trials, and police and prosecutors get the opportunity to identify problematic police officers and take action to rid the force of these officers,” wrote Vida Johnson, a professor at Georgetown Law, in a 2019 law review article.
Americans have a nearly unlimited right to free speech and association, and any effort to stop extremist violence must ensure that those rights are protected. Reforms should be carefully structured to avoid the abuses that occurred in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — the violations of civil liberties, mass surveillance and the accelerated militarization of the police, to name a few. But protecting freedom of expression need not stand in the way of tackling extremism in police departments.
Officers around the country have rightly been fired for racist or extremist actions. But punishment for harboring extremist sympathies is a finer line, because Americans have the right to believe what they like. So, the treatment of officers with extremist beliefs and extremist connections is often uneven. This year, a New York prison guard who belonged to a right-wing hate group was ultimately fired — not just for membership but also for trying to smuggle hate literature into the prison. This may be a useful model in determining where extremist ideology crosses the line to actions that can be addressed by law or regulation.
Other recent attempts to root out extremism have been less clear-cut. An unidentified police officer in Chicago was given a four-month suspension but was not dismissed after it was discovered that he had ties to the Proud Boys. Last month, a police officer in Massachusetts was found to have been involved in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. He resigned, and the district attorney announced an investigation into all closed and pending cases he had worked on.
Coordinating the efforts of the nation’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies has been notoriously difficult. Federal standards or even guidelines about how to deal with extremism — in recruiting officers, disciplining existing ones or even sharing information — would go a long way toward harmonizing law enforcement’s response. But carrying out such changes would require both local attention to detail and the political will to do so. It would also require staffing law enforcement with people committed to the rule of law, rather than rule by force. As one congressional staff member working on homeland security issues put it: “People have to decide this is a priority. We can’t legislate hearts and minds.”
Across the board, extremists and their sympathizers, whether they act on their beliefs or just spread them, erode the public’s trust in the institutions that are designed to keep the country safe. Extremists bearing badges can put at risk ongoing police investigations by leaking confidential information. In the military, extremists pose a threat to good order and discipline. In law enforcement, extremists — particularly white supremacists — pose a threat to the people they are meant to protect, especially people of color. In federal agencies, extremists can compromise national security and make our borders even less secure. Protecting those institutions and the nation they serve demands urgent action.