WASHINGTON – Charges against police officers, public safety workers and military veterans in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol have reignited concerns among lawmakers and law enforcement officials about violent extremists infiltrating government agencies.
Out of 324 arrests in the Capitol riot so far, 43 are current or former first responders or military veterans, according to USA TODAY analysis. At least four police officers and three former officers face federal charges. Two have been fired, one resigned and one was suspended without pay. Each of the officers charged has either pleaded not guilty or not yet been arraigned.
The alleged participation of public safety officials who have sworn to uphold the Constitution has led lawmakers to sound the alarm.
“A street alliance among right-wing paramilitary forces, law enforcement and demagogic politicians has been a hallmark of fascism for a century, so the involvement of multiple law enforcement officers from across the country in waging the Jan. 6th insurrection against the Capitol and the Congress is a warning sign of danger for our democracy,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told USA TODAY. “Off-duty cops beating up on-duty cops to overthrow an election is a nightmare scenario for America.”
The Capitol insurrection, where 140 police officers were injured and three later died, featured numerous examples of violent extremism and white supremacy. Rioters carried Confederate flags and nooses, and wore shirts saying the deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust weren’t enough. Amid the crowd, law enforcement officers reveled in social media posts about how they “attacked the government,” according to court documents.
People involved in a number of hate groups have been arrested since the Capitol assault, including:
- 16 defendants linked to Proud Boys, a misogynistic, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic group with ties to white supremacism
- 13 linked to QAnon, a once-fringe internet conspiracy movement that recently grew into a powerful force in mainstream conservative politics
- 12 linked to Oath Keepers, a paramilitary organization that recruits current and former military, law enforcement and first-responder personnel
Some arrests also included people allegedly associated with the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia movement, and Super Happy Fun America, a group with ties to white nationalists known for organizing a “straight pride” parade in Boston.
‘White supremacists dressed in blue’
Concerns about white nationalists infiltrating police departments have percolated for years. A 2006 FBI report warned that “white supremacist presence among law enforcement personnel is a concern due to the access they may possess to restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage and to elected officials or protected persons, whom they could see as potential targets for violence,” as happened at the Capitol.
“Their presence in law enforcement impedes official responses to right-wing terrorism, places loyal officers in peril, and exposes vulnerable communities to lawless violence by white supremacists dressed in blue,” said Raskin, who has investigated the infiltration of white supremacists in law enforcement as chairman of a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee.
Two men arrested, charged with assaulting Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick on Jan. 6
Julian Elie Khater and George Pierre Tanios were arrested for assaulting Capitol Police officer Sicknick but were not charged with his death.
staff video, USA TODAY
Raskin has asked the FBI for a briefing about white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement by March 26, saying he was concerned the FBI lacks an adequate strategy to respond to the threat to public safety.
The FBI acknowledged receiving Raskin’s letter, but declined further comment.
“It’s alarming that the FBI has been unwilling to level with the American public and Congress about the full magnitude of the threat of domestic white supremacist infiltration of local police departments,” Raskin said. “We await a comprehensive strategy on how federal law enforcement plans to cut the links between law enforcement and right-wing extremist elements, including militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. There is no excuse for further passivity and denial in the face of clear complicity between officers and self-fashioned storm troopers.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2 that “the Capitol attack involved violent extremists” and that the FBI considered it “a form of domestic terrorism.”
He had warned presciently six months earlier that domestic violent extremism was driven by perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny. And he said domestic terrorism cases investigated each year doubled during his three years on the job.
Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., asked whether rooting out white supremacists and right-wing extremists was a challenge for local law enforcement.
Wray said the FBI works with local departments to address violent extremism, which the agency considers “a kind of insider threat,” by referring cases for local investigation and discipline.
“As we’re continuing to investigate the Jan. 6th attack, there have been some instances of current or particular former military or law enforcement who participated,” Wray said. “And we want to pursue those cases just as aggressively as we would anybody else.”
Thomas Robertson and Jacob Fracker
Two officers from Rocky Mount, Virginia – Sgt. Thomas Robertson and Officer Jacob Fracker – were fired Jan. 26 after charges were filed. The two were identified from social media posts after posing under a statue of John Stark, according to court records. Robertson said on Instagram that “CNN and the Left are just mad because we actually attacked the government who is the problem and not some random small business,” according to court records. “The right IN ONE DAY took the f***** U.S. Capitol. Keep poking us.”
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Fracker wrote, “Lol to anyone who’s possibly concerned about the picture of me going around… Sorry I hate freedom? …Not like I did anything illegal,” according to court records.
Tam Pham of Richmond, Texas, an 18-year police officer in Houston, resigned after agents interviewed him about the riot. Pham took pictures inside the Capitol in the Rotunda and standing next to a Trump flag, but he told agents he was only in the building 10 to 15 minutes, according to court records.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced the resignation Jan. 14 and said the department would investigate jointly with the FBI and Justice Department.
Former Houston officer charged in Capitol riot
A former Houston police officer faces two federal misdemeanor charges linked to the U.S. Capitol riot, authorities said. Tam Pham is charged with entering a restricted building and engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct on Capitol grounds. (Jan. 22)
Joseph Fischer, a police officer in North Cornwall Township in Pennsylvania, was suspended without pay after the charges were filed. Fischer posted on Facebook about pushing a police line back 25 feet as officers tried to protect the building and making it to the second level of the Capitol despite being pepper sprayed, according to court records.
Fischer said in a Jan. 6 Facebook post that “it was mostly peaceful” and “a few became destructive,” but he “was inside the capital talking to police,” according to court records.
Thomas Webster of Queens, New York, is a retired police officer charged with assaulting a Metropolitan Police Department officer at the west front of the Capitol. The defending officer’s body camera footage showed Webster berating the officer with profanities, shoving a metal barrier into the officer and hitting him repeatedly with a flagpole with a large Marine Corps flag attached, according to court records.
Laura Young Steele
Laura Young Steele of Thomasville, North Carolina, wrote in her application to join the Oath Keepers that she had 13 years experience in law enforcement, including as a former K-9 officer and SWAT team member, according to court records. Pictures from the Capitol show her in camouflage clothing marching with a group of people in a military-style “stack” formation, with their hands on each other’s backs or jackets to stay connected during the assault, according to court records.
Nicholes Lentz of Boynton Beach, Florida, is a former police officer in North Miami Beach and Fort Pierce. Lentz, whose case has been sealed, allegedly streamed the riot live on Facebook and posted about it.
“We’re not here to hurt any cops of course,” the former police officer and Marine Corps veteran said, according to court records. “I love my boys in blue, but this is overwhelming for them. There’s no way they can hold us back.”
In addition to the police officers arrested, Marissa Suarez of Trenton, New Jersey, resigned as a Monmouth County jail corrections officer after the FBI charged her for illegally entering the Capitol.
Suarez sent a text Jan. 6 at 3:20 p.m. saying: “Sooo we’ve stormed Capitol Hill lol,” according to court records. “When we found out pence (expletive) us, we all stormed the Capitol building and everyone forced entry and started breaking (expletive),” Suarez said in a text Jan. 7, according to court records.
Sheriff Shaun Golden said Suarez resigned after her arrest. He said any violation of federal or state law was “unacceptable, particularly from a sworn member of law enforcement whose role is to protect and serve.”
“Actions have consequences and that applies to those who participated in the peaceful protests that resulted in violence at the Capitol,” Golden said.
Terry Brown, a former public safety officer in Pennsylvania, was also charged.
“There were a bunch of garbage cans they threw down the steps … and people stopped and they were yelling ‘we’re not Antifa,'” he said of his time inside the Capitol. “I don’t regret doing what I did, because we got a message across and the world knows it.”
Beyond arrests: Law enforcement agencies continue to investigate
The riot sparked investigations of law enforcement nationwide, from Philadelphia to Seattle, for officers who supported or participated in the attack.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority investigated seven off-duty transit police officers who attended the Trump rally for whether they participated in the riotous behavior. Two sergeants were suspended without pay for social media posts that could be interpreted as supporting the rioters, the agency announced March 17.
The Seattle Police Department is investigating six officers who were in D.C. during the attack. Two officers have been placed on administrative leave and four remain on duty while the Office of Police Accountability investigates. Police Chief Adrian Diaz said officers would be fired if they were involved in the insurrection.
“We cannot violate the same laws we are sworn to protect,” he said. “We cannot allow violent or intimidating direct action to become acceptable in our society.”
In Oklahoma, Canadian County Sheriff Chris West attended former President Donald Trump’s rally and walked to the Capitol, but he called a news conference to deny pushing past police or entering the Capitol.
“What happened at the nation’s Capitol, the crimes that were committed, the egregious crimes on our beacon and bastion of last hope for our nation, breaking into that and terrorizing it, that’s horrible,” West said. “The fact that people died, the fact that law enforcement officers were assaulted on our nation’s Capitol, that our congressional members and other people in our government were in fear for life, I rebuke all of that.”
Undermining ‘the nation’s trust in law enforcement’
Leaders of a group at the Brennan Center for Justice called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration called for a full investigation after the Capitol attack because of racial dynamics at the scene and the inadequate response to the violence, concerned it could deteriorate the legitimacy of law enforcement.
Ronal Serpas, a former police superintendent in New Orleans, and Taryn Merkl, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York, wrote two days after the riot that if police participated in the mob storming the Capitol, “such actions undermine the nation’s trust in law enforcement and are a disgraceful affront to our professional commitment to serve and protect.”
This comes as Americans’ trust in police hit an all-time low in the summer of 2020, according to Gallup polls, as protests raged against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people.
Meanwhile, trust in local police has risen since the summer, and a jury was seated Friday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering Floyd.
Also this week, Capt. Jay Baker, was removed from the case of the Atlanta-area shootings that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. Baker had said during a Wednesday news conference that the alleged gunman had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.” Baker had also promoted a T-shirt with controversial language about China and the coronavirus.
Longstanding concerns of racism with ‘ramped up’ intensity
The 2006 FBI report found that white supremacist groups historically tried to infiltrate and recruit from law enforcement communities. The report said the threat from infiltrators would be exploitation of intelligence collection, which could jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources.
“It’s been a concern for years,” said Daniel Linskey, former chief of the Boston Police Department and now managing director of security risk management at Kroll. “Definitely the intensity and veracity of it has ramped up in the last two or three years for sure.”
During his 27 years in law enforcement, Linskey worked as an undercover officer pretending to be a drug dealer or mafia figure while others infiltrated white supremacist groups. If a member of a targeted group joined police and got access to databases, they could thwart an investigation and endanger an officer’s life, Linskey said.
“The difference between domestic terrorism and foreign terrorist organizations is where they come from,” he said. “It’s just as if you’re supporting the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club or La Cosa Nostra.”
White supremacists in law enforcement can also lead to the “tolerance of racism within communities served,” the FBI reported.
But racism in policing has a 400-year history in the U.S., historians say, dating back to slave patrols, as well as thousands of recent examples, from Rodney King to Floyd.
In 2019, a team of investigative journalists published the Plain View Project, which collected more than 5,000 Facebook posts from police officers in eight cities containing white supremacist, xenophobic, misogynistic and violent messages. The posts spanned a decade.
Raskin sent letters in September to the eight departments asking for results of investigations of the officers involved. The committee received responses from the departments, but hasn’t yet released the results.
The Dallas Police Department announced in January 2020 that 13 officers were disciplined for misconduct on social media based on the Plain View Project. The project identified 169 current and former officers potentially in violation of the department’s policy for 445 posts. But internal affairs officers determined 60 officers had left the department.
Among the rest, investigators found some posts didn’t violate the policy and some officers were given additional training. The discipline ranged from documented counseling to suspensions without pay.
“It is imperative that we operate with the highest level of ethics and integrity to ensure that the public is confident in the legitimacy of who we are as a law enforcement agency,” then-Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall said at the time.
Heather Taylor, a retired sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department who testified at a House hearing in September about white supremacists in law enforcement, said the Justice Department and Congress should give the issue their utmost attention: “It is really that serious.”
“It’s been there hiding in plain sight,” said Taylor, former president of the Ethical Society of Police, a group founded by Black officers in the city to fight discrimination. “I wish I could tell you I was shocked. I wasn’t.”