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

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Ashley Collman
·8 min read
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GettyImages 1230468399
Security forces responded with tear gas after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • Several off-duty police officers were identified at the US 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 of involvement in the deadly US Capitol riot on January 6.

At least 31 officers in 12 states are being investigated over the chaos in Washington, DC, according to the Associated Press. Some of them also face criminal charges in connection to the riot.

They include Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson, two off-duty police officers 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. Tam Pham, an 18-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, resigned after being charged in the riot.

The identification of police officers at the attack on the government has led some to question whether the police can be trusted with their core duty: to enforce the law.

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

They said the police always had ties to far-right groups, with the Capitol riot merely exposing them.

They also said Americans had a right to be concerned about some officers becoming radicalized but added steps could be taken to ensure that extremists don't continue to infiltrate police departments.

blue lives matter
A Trump supporter with a "Blue Lives Matter" flag at the Capitol on January 6. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty

Tarnishing police reputation

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

Thomas Nolan, a police officer turned sociology professor, told Insider it was an "aberration" that some off-duty officers 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.

Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson
The off-duty Virginia police officers Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson were arrested after taking this selfie during the Capitol riot. US Attorney’s Office, District of Columbia

Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the arrest of police officers at the riot did 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

Elliott Currie, a criminology professor at the University of California at 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."

oath keepers
Men belonging to the Oath Keepers, a far-right group made up of current and former service members, police officers, and first responders, at the Trump rally on January 6. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

'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 thought "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 were feeling "comfortable becoming more public" with their ideologies could 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 Guard troops 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 armed groups, according to the Associated Press.

Nolan said that the FBI probably didn'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 the politicization of the police is a bigger issue than a couple of dozen off-duty police officers taking part in a pro-Trump riot.

Currie said there's evidence that police politicization "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 had 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 it 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 people who echo these beliefs, as opposed to people who call for more checks on police power and authority.

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Trump supporters clashed with security forces at the Capitol on January 6. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

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

Currie said one of the things he found "very troubling" was 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 during 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 the Capitol Police compared with the Black Lives Matter protesters over the 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 worldview 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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