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How Do You Deradicalize a Cop?

As law enforcement agencies search their ranks for extremists, deeper questions have emerged about the racist, conspiratorial thinking embedded in those institutions.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

Even before the violence at the Capitol on January 6, when supporters of Donald Trump drawn from the ranks of MAGA rallygoers, anti-government militias, and QAnon stormed the building and breached the House and Senate chambers, the threat posed by the convergence of such groups was obvious and nearly synonymous with Trump himself. At #StopTheSteal protests outside county offices where ballots were being tallied, at statehouses across the country—where they demanded they “reopen” despite the pandemic—these groups had been making common cause for months. Despite the rioting, Trump departed the White House two weeks later with a wave and a literal “have a nice life.” But as disorienting as it may be, his decisive loss has not spelled the failure of Trumpism. Not only is the threat of far-right violence far older than Trump, it remains rooted in the institutions that carried out his orders, which aligned with his worldview, and did even before he assumed office. 

As the new Biden-Harris administration turns to confront the political violence meant to prevent it from officially entering office, its efforts will likely involve bringing the force of the law down even harder. It will be asked to pass new legislation targeting domestic terrorism, despite broad opposition from civil rights groups. Its Department of Justice will be scrutinized for each prosecution related to January 6, from the criminal charges to bail conditions to the sentences that may follow. And it will also have to investigate the law enforcement apparatus itself. 

“More than a dozen off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the Jan. 6 mob and are under investigation,” The Washington Post reports this week. “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.” Three have been suspended. (The problem is not limited to the police: An NPR investigation found that at least one in five defendants charged so far in connection with the Capitol riots have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military.) Law enforcement officers who participated in the riots trouble the idea that the pro-Trump protesters were insurgents. They underscore, despite fractures and a willingness to use violence against the state, how close to institutional power the “insurrection” really was.

Just months ago, police and federal officers met protests against police violence with more violence. In a way, they were a counterprotest, one with the backing of the state. “I’m really thinking hard about the notion of a thin blue line, and what does it mean when the very forces that many of us were fighting in June are the forces that ended up trying to take the capital?” the author and UCLA professor of history Robin D.G. Kelley observed in a recent interview with Ryan Devereaux at The Intercept. “I actually think they’re responses to insurgency”—which is, in this case, Devereaux noted, “a historic mass movement challenging the power and role of the police in American society.” If previous popular protests against police who kill with impunity focused on holding individual officers accountable or saw the solution in a series of reforms to the way police do their work, this summer it was the whole institution that was under scrutiny and was increasingly understood as something fundamentally at odds with a democracy in which all people are equal. 

Can we bring this same deep analysis to the question of far-right extremism and law enforcement? To do so would accept that rooting out individual bad actors is insufficient. Further criminalizing extremist violence would lend the institution of law enforcement more power. The same kind of perceived victimhood that attracts people to join groups like the Proud Boys, where they can enact violence on scapegoats? It can be heard from police unions—which, even when they are the ones carrying the firepower, cast protesters as a threat. The Capitol riots, when some people in the mob turned on the uniformed, on-duty police, may scramble this. They did so out of their own misplaced victimhood, of betrayal. “This is not America,” one woman said as people retreated from the Capitol, as recounted by Andrew McCormick in The Nation. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.” This isn’t to say that police should have been treating the rioters “like” protesters at Black Lives Matter marches. What we saw was what we knew cops always could do, if they wanted: react with restraint.  

We know there are members of law enforcement and the military who are active in far-right extremist groups outside the purview of their professional duties. But their official work can support their extramural extremism, even drive it. “Many have specialized training, some have seen combat, and nearly all have been fed disinformation and propaganda from illegitimate sources,” Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, told the AP after the riots. “They are fueled by conspiracy theories, feel as if something is being stolen from them, and they are not interested in debate. This is a powder keg cocktail waiting to blow.” Police falling for conspiracy theories can look like the head of a police union going on Fox with a QAnon coffee mug in view. It’s also in police alleging (without any truth) that “organized looters” are placing “caches” of bricks around a city, or taking to social media to claim that when officers order milkshakes, fast-food workers are eagerly spiking them with a “toxic substance, believed to be bleach.”

This dynamic might be even more overt in immigration enforcement, where militia and militia-like groups who “patrol” the border have overlapped with Customs and Border Protection agents. As Debbie Nathan has reported, Border Patrol agents have come upon militias in the process of detaining people they believe are trying to cross the border—like the United Constitutional Patriots, who have recorded themselves harassing migrants—and done nothing. UCP emerged from and drives far-right propaganda about migrant caravans. In one week in 2019, they captured hundreds of migrants, The Intercept reported. “The migrants’ captors summoned the Border Patrol. The agents, once they arrived, offered no sign of concern at the masked men carrying AR-15s decorated with Punisher skulls.”

Almost immediately upon assuming office, President Biden signed executive orders instituting a 100-day moratorium on scheduled deportations and rolling back other Trump anti-immigrant directives. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol, however, are still in control of those policies’ last mile. On Sunday, a man in ICE custody whose deportation should have been halted was told he would be deported anyway, setting off fears that ICE would ignore the new order. “There are elements of extremism within ICE, which has been deeply radicalized at the hands of Donald Trump,” Richie Torres, a Democratic representative from New York, said on MSNBC, discussing this case. “And even though Joe Biden is the president of the United States, I do worry that ICE remains loyal to the nativist ideology of Donald Trump, so ICE cannot be trusted to police itself.” ICE is its own kind of propaganda operation, with its flood of press releases about “criminal aliens” and emphasizing “hurt and injured Americans,” as a former public affairs officer told Topic, but also its standard denials about family separation in 2020. The net result is a disinformation environment, leaving people unsure of what to believe or whom they can trust. 

We don’t have to ask of such agencies, “Where were they radicalized?” We know. We live there, too. But how do you begin to dismantle the paranoia, the conspiracy theories, the willingness to do violence off the clock—when it is their job? Dismantling all that involves reaching further back than the Trump years. It could take dismantling those agencies entirely.