“There is zero room, not only in society, but more so in professions of public trust and service, for people to have extremist views, regardless of ideology,” said Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which includes senior police officials from almost 90 American and Canadian cities. President Biden’s goal of addressing domestic extremism will partly hinge on the ability to curb its spread in police departments and the military, experts noted.
Concerns about extremism in police ranks have long existed, but after Sept. 11 chasing jihadists took priority over chasing domestic threats, senior police officials and law enforcement experts said.
In recent years, police or other agencies in Virginia, Florida, Nebraska, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas have all fired officers belonging to the Ku Klux Klan. In Philadelphia in 2019, the Police Department announced that 13 officers would be dismissed among the 72 who were placed on administrative leave because of racist Facebook posts.
For decades, Los Angeles County has downplayed accusations that sheriff’s deputies repeatedly organized secret white-supremacist groups with their own tattoos and hand signs. But a recent study by the office of the Los Angeles County Counsel concluded that the county has paid out some $55 million to settle lawsuits accusing such groups of malign influence.
Sometimes groups opposed to the government emerge within law enforcement itself. Hundreds have joined the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, for example, which claims that sheriffs have the last word on whether any U.S. or local law is constitutional and should be enforced or not.
During his presidency, Mr. Trump often declared himself a friend of the police, and many police unions endorsed him. Police officers enjoy the same rights as all citizens in supporting political candidates, but the problem comes when they take it a step further into anti-government activism, senior police officials and law enforcement experts said.
Recently, during protests prompted by the death of George Floyd in police custody, far-right organizers, eager to recruit police or military veterans, portrayed themselves as allies to law enforcement, said Brian Levin, a former policeman and the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.