Former and current members of law enforcement agencies and the military appear to have participated in last week’s chaos in Washington, alarming lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Americans nationwide as each day brings new video and information about the riot and the rioters.
Investigations by law enforcement agencies and news organizations, along with a series of arrests, have exposed a widening issue of domestic extremism among the ranks of those who are meant to protect Americans.
On Monday, even the U.S. Capitol Police announced that the agency had suspended “several” of its own and will investigate at least 10 officers for their actions.
Police departments in New York City, Seattle and Philadelphia, as well as smaller agencies across the country, are investigating whether their officers participated in the pro-Trump riot, which has been tied to the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer. The investigations are based on tips, including social media posts.
The Army said it was investigating a psychological operations officer who led 100 Trump supporters from North Carolina to Washington. The FBI arrested a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel in Texas after he breached the Senate chamber wearing tactical gear and carrying zip-tie handcuffs known as flex cuffs. There are calls for a Pennsylvania state legislator, who is a retired Army colonel and taught at the Army War College for five years, to resign after he and his wife attended Wednesday’s event. Ashli Babbitt, 33, the QAnon supporter who was shot and killed by Capitol Police, was a 14-year Air Force veteran.
The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating 25 members of the service, though it is unclear whether they are retired or active in the military ranks.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in a letter to Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller that the Pentagon needed to open an investigation to determine if retired or current members of the military “engaged in insurrection against the authority of the United States, or participated in a seditious conspiracy that used force to: oppose the authority of the United States; prevent, hinder and delay the execution of the Electoral Count Act; and unlawfully seize, take or possess property of the United States.”
That domestic extremist groups may have targeted for recruitment members of law enforcement agencies and the military as well as veterans is unsurprising to Elizabeth Neumann, who was the assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy at the Department of Homeland Security until she resigned in April.
Neumann said that the military and law enforcement agencies have long known that active-duty recruitment by the far right was an issue but that they have done little to address it. The problem was further deprioritized when President Donald Trump entered the White House, she said.
“It’s a movement,” said Neumann, who said right-wing extremism has developed around support for Trump and his dog whistles. “A lot of them are very decentralized, but there’s a sophistication in who and how they groom people and how they recruit people and where they try to encourage people to go for their longer-term aims.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we have a problem of white supremacy and extremism in law enforcement and the military,” she said.
Congressional efforts to investigate members of the military and law enforcement agencies in the past, however, have largely been stymied.
Most recently, a bill titled the Domestic Terror Prevention Act made its way through the House, although it never came to a vote. Among other provisions, it would have required the secretary of homeland security, the attorney general and the director of the FBI to file an annual report that assessed “the domestic terrorism threat posed by White supremacists and neo-Nazis, including White supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies and the uniformed services.”
The Senate never considered the legislation after it was introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., with 13 Democratic co-sponsors. Durbin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A former House staffer who worked on the legislation said Democrats and Republicans struggled to support the bill’s provision to require a domestic terrorism assessment of extremist groups’ potential infiltration of law enforcement agencies and uniformed services.
The military and law enforcement agencies were considered a dangerous third rail.
“Before Wednesday, a politician couldn’t even publicly acknowledge that this could be a problem. Two years ago, we were just trying to get a report to see if these were just one-offs, because we kept seeing growing domestic terror plots,” the staffer said about the work on the bill. “But everybody was like, ‘Dear God, whose boss is going to lose their seat over this?'”
Law enforcement at issue
Police departments across the country are investigating their own members’ involvement in the Capitol riot.
The mob showed up at Trump’s behest to march on Washington in support of his false claim that the November election was stolen and to stop lawmakers from confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
New York City’s mayor and police commissioner have said they intend to fire anyone who stormed the Capitol.
“This is a group of people who attacked our Congress, attacked it to disrupt the presidential vote count,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Anyone who participated in that, anyone who stormed that building trying to disrupt the workings of government, should not be allowed to serve in government.”
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Monday on the NY1 news channel that so far, one New York police officer is alleged to have participated in the attack and that “anyone committing crimes certainly would have a very short shelf life with the NYPD.”
Shea said the officer’s name wasn’t being released “because we don’t know if it’s true or not.”
Over the weekend, the Philadelphia Police Department said it was made aware of social media posts that alleged that one of its detectives “may have been in attendance at the events.”
A police spokesman, Sgt. Eric Gripp, said an internal affairs investigation had been launched to determine whether any of the department’s policies “were violated by the detective, and if they participated in any illegal activities while in attendance.”
Philadelphia police declined Monday to identify the detective, citing the internal investigation. Gripp said the detective’s assignment has been changed pending the outcome.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing sources within the police department, identified the officer as Detective Jennifer Gugger, a member of the Recruit Background Investigations Unit. Gugger couldn’t be reached for comment at numbers listed for her.
The police department in the town of Rocky Mount, Virginia, said in a statement Sunday that it was aware that “two off-duty officers were present at an event in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.”
Rocky Mount police said that they had notified federal authorities and that the officers are on administrative leave pending review.
“The Town of Rocky Mount fully supports all lawful expressions of freedom of speech and assembly by its employees but does not condone the unlawful acts that occurred that day,” the statement said.
Rocky Mount police didn’t return an emailed request for comment. NBC affiliate WSLS of Roanoke, Virginia, identified the officers through social media posts as Thomas Robertson and Jacob Fracker, neither of whom could be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s interim police chief, Adrian Diaz, said Friday that at least two officers were placed on administrative leave and referred to the department’s Office of Police Accountability after the department received social media posts that showed the officers were in Washington on Wednesday.
The internal investigation will determine whether any department policies were violated and whether any potential illegal activities should be referred for criminal investigation, Diaz said, adding that if any Seattle officers were directly involved, he will immediately terminate them.
“We cannot violate the same laws we are sworn to protect,” he said in a statement.
Troy, New Hampshire, Police Chief David Ellis is facing calls for his resignation from residents after an interview with the Intelligencer, a web publication run by New York Magazine, placed him in Washington on Wednesday.
Ellis told New Hampshire Public Radio that he attended Trump’s rally on the National Mall, but he said he was there as a spectator, and he condemned the mob that stormed the Capitol. He said the breach of the Capitol “was not going to solve a thing, and then to see the police get treated the way they were treated, it’s ridiculous,” the Intelligencer reported.
Ellis couldn’t be reached for comment.
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Lynda Garcia, director of the policing program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, said police have an obligation to protect the public from discrimination and criminal conduct.
“When officers display this sort of behavior, especially as it’s tied in so deeply to hate and bias, they reflect poorly on the police departments,” Garcia said. “They send messages to the very people that they are charged with protecting and serving — that they stand against them.”
It also diminishes community trust, she said.
Garcia, who was a litigator in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2015 to 2018, said police departments must hold officers accountable and discipline them “when they engage with these sorts of activities.”
Every police department has a policy about professional conduct, Garcia said, as well as a code of ethics or social media policies that prohibit and restrict officers from posting content that might disparage people or reflect poorly on the department.
She said any officer who is found to be in violation of the policies with regard to the riot can be fired if discipline is applicable.
“And that’s not to even speak of the potential criminal conduct that they might have engaged in,” Garcia said.
Extremism in the military
Wednesday’s violence and chaos, as well as the appearance of rioters using military tactics, have alarmed current and former members of the military, as well as the congressional leaders with oversight of the armed forces.
The fear is that domestic extremist groups could co-opt the training as well as the popularity of the military — which maintains high approval ratings even as many elements of government are historically unpopular — to legitimize their operations. The services haven’t always been particularly active in rooting out potential extremists, even as their members and potential recruits have been targeted.
That has led congressional leaders to request that the historic number of National Guard troops sent to ensure safety at Biden’s inauguration undergo security screenings before they are assigned.
“The military has been hot and cold on this. It’s been very uneven. Their ability and even their willingness to dig into the people within the force, what they post on their social media accounts, what kind of causes they endorse, have been restricted,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, the former head of combined forces in Afghanistan. “I think we’re going to need some new legislation that allows the military to take a deeper look.”
It’s difficult to quantify the infiltration of white supremacist or extremist groups within the military. A 2019 survey of troops by the Military Times found that 36 percent of service members said they had seen evidence of white supremacist or racist ideologies in the military, a significant jump from the year before, when only 22 percent reported the same.
The Defense Department, however, said in a 2018 letter to Keith Ellison, then a Democratic House member from Minnesota, that it had received only “27 reports of extremist activity by Service members over the past five years.”
“Punishment may not, in and of itself, be descriptive of extremist actions of activity,” the letter added.
The bar for being punished for sharing extremist or racist ideologies is much lower in the military than it is in civilian life or even in law enforcement. Members of the service branches are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is much stricter about speech and can apply even to those who have retired from the military depending on the crime.
John Altenburg, a retired deputy judge advocate general of the Army, prosecuted over 700 cases under the military code. He said members of the military sacrifice some of their freedoms in support of the services’ mission. Free speech can be limited.
“Some of our rights are abridged because of the nature of the military organization and the importance of cohesion and combat readiness,” he said. “So we can’t just say anything we want.”
Veterans are much freer to participate in speech, and they are a popular voting bloc courted by politicians. They could, however, still be brought back for court-martial if they retired as officers.
Barno said he is concerned that retired general officers, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, participated in the movements and gave them further legitimacy. Flynn’s example, he said, “is the epitome of what not to do for the past five years.”
Instead, he said, flag officers need to come out and remind service members of the oath they took, condemn the riot and commit to Biden as the future commander-in-chief — which the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a memo Tuesday.
“Participation in these groups is absolutely unacceptable,” Barno said. They’re seeking to undermine the Constitution of the United States, something every service member has sworn an oath to support and defend.”