In the late 1970’s, I served three years as Indianapolis’ Corporation Counsel–the city’s chief lawyer. Defending police against charges of wrongdoing was one of the tasks of the legal department, and one of the lasting lessons I took away was the need to hire officers carefully.
As a police chief I worked with at the time was fond of saying, “We give these guys guns to carry and authority to use them–we have an obligation to select and train them so they won’t abuse that authority.” During my tenure, the City instituted psychological tests in an effort to weed out applicants who were attracted to policing for authoritarian or other dubious reasons, and made several efforts to improve training.
During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, I often thought back to those City experiences. I knew many truly admirable officers–but City Legal also had to defend some indefensible ones. And the police union didn’t help–for them, it was all “us versus them,” and “our guys right or wrong.”
Because I knew there was truth to both “the policeman is your friend” and accusations of brutality and worse, I may have been less shocked by a headline in the Guardian after January 6th: “US Capitol riot: police have long history of aiding neo-Nazis and extremists.”
For years, domestic terrorism researchers have warned that there are police departments in every region of America counting white supremacist extremists and neo-Nazi sympathizers among their ranks.
To these experts, and the activists who have been targeted by law enforcement officers in past years, it came as no surprise that police officers were part of the mob that stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. In fact, the acceptance of far-right beliefs among law enforcement, they say, helped lay the groundwork for the extraordinary attacks in the American capital.
Criminal justice news sites have identified at least 30 sworn members of police agencies from some 12 different states who participated in the insurrection, and several on-duty Capitol police officers have been suspended for allegedly supporting, rather than resisting, the rioters. Scholars who study extremist movements and survivors of far-right violence have warned for years that there are close ties between some police and white supremacist groups.
As news of the participation of police in the insurrection has emerged, some officers have abandoned the traditional “wall of silence..”According to the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the behavior of those participants was so egregious, it prompted fellow officers to alert police chiefs and others to their colleagues’ participation in the mob attack on the Capitol.
Actively helping an effort to overthrow the government might have been a step too far, but the linked article recounts several exceedingly troubling events in which police actively protected Neo-Nazis rather than those they were attacking. One example:
In June 2016 in Sacramento at least ten people were stabbed and injured at a rally of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), a group that extremism experts have classified as neo-Nazis.
The subsequent investigation, led by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), focused on the anti-fascist counter-protesters injured in the stabbings, with records showing that police worked with white supremacists to identify leftist activists and pursue criminal charges against the stabbing victims.
The lead CHP investigator, Donovan Ayres, repeatedly stated in police records that he viewed the neo-Nazis as victims and the anti-fascists as suspects.
Research continues to confirm that protestors on the Left are far more likely to be arrested than those on the Right.
York University sociologist Lesley Wood analyzed 64 U.S. protests from 2017 and 2018 where counter-protesters were present and arrests were made. She found that right-leaning protesters accounted for 8% of total arrests, while left-leaning protesters accounted for 81%. (The ideology of the remaining arrestees — 38 of them at 14 events — couldn’t be identified from news reports.) Although Wood cautioned against drawing conclusions solely from the raw numbers–more people have attended protests by the Left than the Right–there is nevertheless consistent evidence that police will move far more aggressively against those on the Left.
And it will surprise absolutely no one that–as authors of a 2012 analysis found, “events initiated by African Americans remain a positive and robust predictor of the use of force…”
Part of the problem is that we currently call on the police to address problems that should be shifted to other forms of public safety, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare and other community resources. “Defund the police” was one of the stupidest and most counter-productive slogans produced by Democrats (and that is saying something!), but the actual shifts of responsibility being proposed under that banner were mostly sensible.
It is long past time to improve the way we recruit, train and discipline officers, and modify what we ask them to do.