Law enforcement confronts an old threat: far-right extremism in the ranks. 'Swift action must be taken'

Kevin Rector, Richard Winton
·9 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29, 2021: LAPD Chief Michel Moore talks about extremism in the police ranks during an interview with reporter inside his office at LAPD Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Moore discussed what actions the LAPD is taking in relation to assessing whether extremism exists among its rank and file and command staff after reports that many police officers were in Washington D.C. on January 6, including some LAPD officers. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
LAPD Chief Michel Moore discusses the agency's efforts to prevent extremism among officers. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

After an Orange County sheriff's deputy was spotted on a protest skirmish line wearing a far-right Oath Keepers patch last summer, the department started to look for ways to better address extremism in its ranks.

Last week, after sources confirmed that FBI agents had searched the Irvine apartment of another O.C. officer suspected of participating in the far-right insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the agency again stressed efforts to improve — including by pointing to new training to teach personnel how far-right and other radical groups recruit, operate and pose threats to police and the public.

"Obviously our thought process is our employees need to be informed," said Sgt. Dennis Breckner, a sheriff's spokesman. "The course is educational: This is what these groups do, and this is how they might try and ingratiate themselves with law enforcement officers and then use their participation for the group's own means."

In the wake of the Capitol attack and other recent incidents exposing far-right sympathies among law enforcement officers and the military — which is a big feeder of recruits into police forces — law enforcement leaders across the country are confronting anew an old threat: far-right extremism within their own ranks.

While leaders say they have long vetted for white supremacist, anti-government and other racist and radical beliefs and precluded recruits who harbor them, they also acknowledged that growing ideological fissures in the country have drawn an increasingly broad cross-section of the American populace, including cops, down conspiratorial rabbit holes and into the fold of radical right-wing militias and white supremacist organizations.

They noted growing court filings and evidence implicating individuals with military and policing backgrounds in the Capitol attack — which featured Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other extremist factions — and said it has forced them to take a more careful look at the policies they have to prevent radicals from getting guns and badges.

In a response to congressional questions last month about police officers allegedly being involved in the Capitol attack, Major Cities Chiefs Assn. President Art Acevedo said law enforcement leaders nationwide would be reviewing the attack and looking for ways to root out extremism.

"To be clear, officers who subscribe to violent extremism, racism and hate have no place in our profession," Acevedo wrote to Congress. "When officers with that mindset are identified, swift action must be taken."

Days earlier, Acevedo — who is also chief of the Houston Police Department — announced that one of his officers had been identified entering the Capitol. That officer, Tam Pham, has resigned and been federally charged in the siege.

In an interview, Acevedo said the Capitol attack was "a wake-up call for the American people" and a moment of reckoning for police leaders.

"It is the first time in modern history that we have officers engaging in acts of sedition," he said. "We have to do everything we can as police departments to weed out extremists who support violence, be it far right or far left."

Similar efforts to address radicalism are also occurring in prosecutors' offices and at the highest levels of government and the military.

Newly elected Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón has said "extremist groups must be uprooted from law enforcement immediately." President Biden's administration has promised to expand the Justice Department's power to investigate systemic police misconduct through the consent decree process. New U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III last week said he had "met with senior leaders to discuss extremism in the military" and ordered a "stand down" over the next 60 days "so each service, each command and each unit can have a deeper conversation about this issue."

"It comes down to leadership," Austin wrote on Twitter. "Everyone’s."

The new reckoning in some ways mirrors what Democratic lawmakers, academics and left-leaning activists have called on law enforcement to commit to for years — making it both welcome and overdue, some of those critics said.

The FBI highlighted the threat of white supremacist sentiment in police forces in a 2006 report released by Congress in September. Last August, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute at the New York University Law School, found evidence the Oath Keepers and another group known as the Three Percenters had successfully infiltrated law enforcement, noting ties within at least a dozen states including California.

The issue has loomed in Southern California for decades.

In 1991, U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. found that a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” of tattooed deputies existed within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, with the knowledge of department officials. In 1996, L.A. County paid $9 million in fines and training costs to settle a related class-action lawsuit. Today, the Sheriff's Department says it takes allegations of bias or extremism seriously and roots out guilty deputies, but also faces new charges of harboring tattooed gangs — with the latest allegations landing just last year.

In a 2019 academic paper, associate Georgetown Law professor Vida Johnson found white supremacist ideology in departments across the country, noting "scandals in over 100 different police departments, in over 40 different states, in which individual police officers have sent overtly racist emails, texts or made racist comments via social media."

Still, the issue has never been sufficiently addressed, Johnson said in an interview.

"It's clear that extremist groups on the right and white supremacists have been agents of chaos, of violence in our community, and the fact that police are just now interested in training on this, I find more than disturbing," Johnson said.

She said it is equally concerning when officers subscribe to some of the more modern conspiracy theories that circulate among the same groups — such as COVID-19 is a hoax or Biden stole the election from former President Trump.

"People who can't separate fact from fiction probably shouldn't be the ones enforcing laws with guns," Johnson said.

Police officials say they are grappling with all of this.

Activists in L.A. have in recent years called out various individual LAPD officials for online comments and "likes" that the activists argued were radical and racist. Some critics say right-wing extremism runs deep in the department, and claim it has biased the department's responses to protests where right-wing and left-wing factions have clashed. In recent weeks, social media accounts purportedly created and followed by LAPD personnel drew more scrutiny for their sexist, homophobic and otherwise crude tone.

Late last month, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore sent a notice to his entire force reminding officers that their actions on and off duty must remain unsullied under the department's ethics code, and that posting "harassing, discriminatory, and/or defamatory material" on social media could result in termination.

"Recent events both here and in Washington D.C., have shown the power and influence of social media, including how that power is not always used for good or legitimate purposes," Moore wrote.

In an interview, Moore said last summer's protests drove him and other LAPD officials to have renewed discussions about the best ways to vet for extremists and root them out when they're found — lest they undermine their efforts to rebuild trust in L.A.'s diverse neighborhoods. He also said the LAPD is a diverse department, reflecting an array of political positions and beliefs, and rejected the notion that extremism was prevalent among his officers.

Moore said police departments deserve credit for diversifying their ranks for years, including by hiring more women and LGBTQ officers.

Still, he acknowledged the current cultural moment demands renewed attention to inclusion and fairness, and presents challenges.

Choosing where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech, between opinions an officer is entitled to and opinions that undermine the department's mission, isn't easy, Moore said. Separating dangerous extremism from political opinions that simply run counter to one's own can also be fraught in today's hyper-partisan atmosphere, he argued.

"What's really critical I believe going forward is for America to ... recognize extremes and have no place for them in this democracy, but also to recognize views that are different from their own and not vilify or call them extremist," Moore said.

Asked whether a member of an extremist group such as the Proud Boys — a misogynistic and xenophobic organization whose members were allegedly involved in the Capitol storming — could also be an LAPD officer, Moore at first suggested that the Proud Boys fell into a broad category of groups, along with Black Lives Matter, that many Americans were still trying to understand.

"America is struggling today with understanding whether the Proud Boys, some aspects of BLM, other groups including Heritage Foundation and others, represent ideology that’s counter to this democracy," Moore said. "What I know is that this democracy is made best when there is discussion and there’s dialogue and debate."

He added that determining when an officer crosses the line into unacceptable extremism largely depended on an assessment of whether their actions or comments could give the public an impression that they as officers would not be able to "act in a fair and impartial manner."

"That's where the line is," Moore said. "I hate to use the analogy that’s overly used, but it’s kind of like pornography. You know it when you see it."

Moore said that he personally considers the Proud Boys a group that "runs counter to this democracy," and does not believe that "there is any place for a law enforcement officer to be a member of such organization or advocate for their existence."

He said he is not aware of any LAPD officers who are members of the Proud Boys or any other extremist organization, but that the department is ready to investigate any such claims and fire individuals who cross the line of what is acceptable.

In Orange County, Sheriff Don Barnes also has expressed little patience for racism or radicalism in his ranks.

After the deputy was spotted with an Oath Keepers patch and a Gadsden flag patch on his vest last summer, Barnes announced an investigation, saying the symbols "contradict the values" of the department and that he was personally "deeply disturbed."

Just two months later, however, the sheriff said the investigation was over — with the deputy, later identified as Russell Sison, still employed — because there was "no evidence" Sison had any "extremist views or racial views."

Asked about the FBI search of Special Officer Monica Alston's apartment last week, a sheriff's spokesman said an officer had been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation but would not comment further.

Neither Sison nor Alston could be reached for comment.

Staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.