For more than three decades, Sheriff Chris West of Canadian County, Oklahoma, has dedicated his life to the protection of the law and public safety.
A veteran of the United States Marines, he spent 28 years as a highway patrol officer in Oklahoma, reaching the rank of captain and then, in 2017, being elected sheriff in his home county. In 2019 he was recognized as “Oklahoma Sheriff of the Year” and last year he was elected to a second term as sheriff, running as the sole candidate.
Then January 6 arrived.
West said he put his sheriff badge and official role aside when he traveled to Washington to support President Donald Trump. “I went there as a citizen, like Chris West, the person,” he said at a press conference in El Reno, the county seat, after his return.
According to his account, West walked towards the Capitol waving a Trump flag and shouting slogans like “Stop the theft!” (stop the flight) and “We love Trump!” (we love Trump). But he would not have participated in the invasion of the Capitol. He criticized the attack.
His actions divided opinions in the Canadian county, which covers parts of Oklahoma City and rural areas west of the city. Several thousand people signed a petition calling for his deportation, and even more people approved a petition to the contrary in support of him.
West is among at least 30 police and other law enforcement officials who participated in the January 6 protest. Many of them are now the subject of internal investigations and three have been arrested on federal charges related to the Capitol invasion.
Their presence has exacerbated questions that have simmered for decades: How many law enforcement officials across the country subscribe to radical or anti-government ideas, and how exactly can law enforcement get them out of their way? ranks? Security force leaders say law enforcement officials must obey higher standards than private citizens when it comes to accepting election results and performing their duties.
Meeting at an online conference last week, police chiefs in major US cities agreed to try to cooperate to prevent members of far-right organizations or others with radical positions from joining their ranks. .
“Not only in society in general, but especially in professions which involve public service and public trust, there is no space for extremist views, regardless of the ideology of those who hold them”, explained Art Acevedo, chief of police in Houston and president of the Association of Chiefs of Major Cities, which brings together senior officials from nearly 90 American and Canadian cities. President Joe Biden’s goal of tackling domestic extremism will depend in part on whether it is possible to curb the spread of extremism in law enforcement and military forces, experts said.
Concern over extremism in the police ranks has been around for a long time, but according to police and public security officials, after 9/11, the persecution of jihadists took precedence over the effort to counteract them. national threats.
During his presidency, Trump has repeatedly declared himself a friend of the police, and many police unions have endorsed him. Police officers have the same rights as all citizens to support any political candidate they choose, but police and public security experts say the problem arises when they go further and participate in activism. anti-government.
Recently, during protests motivated by the death of George Floyd in police custody, far-right organizers, anxious to recruit veterans of the police or the army, presented themselves as allies of the police. said Brian Levin, former police officer and director of the Center for Studies on Hate and Extremism, at California State University in San Bernardino.
Several entities have spoken of helping to preserve law and order, while spreading distorted allegations of voter fraud or chaos during the Black Lives Matter protests. It was a “false alliance,” Levin said, not least because these organizations seek to weaken the government. During protests, members of these bodies often wave the Thin Blue Line flag – a black and white American flag with a navy blue line in the middle, reportedly symbolizing solidarity with the police.
Some participants in the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill waved this flag, while Capitol police were attacked and one was killed. Acevedo said the flag “had been hijacked by extremists. These people act like they are so pro-police, but they beat the police.
Houston policeman Tam Dinh Pham, an 18-year-old police veteran, resigned shortly before being arrested on January 19 for illegally entering the Capitol. Pham, 48, first denied the charge and then, according to the criminal complaint, told FBI agents that he went to Capitol Hill because he wanted to “see the story” going on. ‘writing. Two police officers from a small town in Virginia who were also criminally charged were fired.
Pham was not affiliated with any extremist organization, but Acevedo used his example to conduct an appeal and response exercise with police cadets on his first day of training last month. Houston Police released a video of the exercise, including the following clips:
“If any of you in this room right now thinks someone must have been on Capitol Hill that day, get out of here now!” Do you understand me?”
“Because you’re not going to survive in this department if you have that mentality. Do you understand this? “
“Is there a place for hate?”
“Is there a place for discrimination?”
“Is there room for a militia in this department or any other police department?”
Acevedo questioned the cadets, asking them four times if they understood that they should denounce any police officer with extremist positions. Recently, a cadet who boasted of belonging to the Aryan Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi criminal gang, was reported by a colleague and exonerated.
“I think we’re all mad now because we have police officers who think it’s okay to invade our nation’s capital,” Acevedo told the Cadets. “These people are absolute traitors to our nation, to the oath we take when we take office.”
The number of extremists in the security forces is unknown; the police describe them as a marginal sector, as is the case with the general public. With 18,000 public security agencies in the country, many of which are small and with limited resources, there is a patchwork of rules and practices on how to identify and eliminate those deemed to be threats. Dismissal is not automatic.
A Philadelphia policeman pictured in 2016 with an apparently Nazi tattoo was not fired in part because the department did not have a stated rule regarding such tattoos. In 2019, the department, among other restrictions, banned its officers from wearing tattoos that promote violence or are seen as lewd.
The Supreme Court has limited the freedom of expression rights of public officials speaking in their official capacity, limiting them to matters of public interest, experts commented, and to cases where the public good trumps individual interests. But Los Angeles County police officers fired for participating in gangs and who challenged his dismissal have been reintegrated into society in some cases.
Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said people in extreme positions are just as likely to be present in the public safety sector as they are in society as a whole. “There may be a perception that we have a serious problem with this across the country, but that perception does not match my observations,” he said.
Even so, he and many others predict that there will be more rigorous screening. According to Acevedo, polygraph tests applied to Houston police officers, focusing on drug use or criminal activity in the past, will be expanded to include anti-government views.
The FBI has classified domestic extremism as a major threat, but has not articulated a response to extremists in the security forces, said Michael German, a former FBI agent who works with police and government reforms. Public Safety Sector at the Brennan Justice Center of the New York University.
He and other experts have pointed out that police officers generally know who supports far-right views, but tend to protect each other.
In Franklin County, Kentucky, five public defenders called on the local sheriff to investigate Deputy Sheriff Jeff Farmer after attending the January 6 rally.
The deputy sheriff endorsed the false claim that the election results were rigged and took part in a protest filled with “offensive symbols” like a gallows and the Confederate flag, said Nathan Goodrich, one of the public defenders. “I think the police services should ensure that the credibility of their officers is not questionable,” he said.
The farmer, who was put on administrative leave while under investigation, did not respond to a phone message asking for comment. He was then exempted from all criminal offenses and ordered not to post anything on social media that could have a negative effect on his service.
In Oklahoma, critics of Chris West said for months he had openly defended political positions. He refused to implement the order of masks in Oklahoma City to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and formed a civil “society” to maintain order at public events. Its opponents viewed the group as a paramilitary organization. The Capitol invasion came a few months later.
Sheriff David Mahoney, president of the National Sheriffs Association, said he passed on to the FBI investigative information he received that West made a memorial phone call from the Capitol.
West did not return calls for comment and three of the main authors of the supporting petition also declined to comment.