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What We Know—and What We Don’t Know—About the Presence of Right-Wing Extremism in US Law Enforcement

William RosenauMegan McBride
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The alleged participation of off-duty law enforcement personnel in the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol has generated fresh interest in the broader issue of police participation in right-wing extremist groups and activities.1 Such extremism poses obvious but significant challenges for police agencies and their  communities. It can undermine the rule of law, damage police morale, compromise investigations, hinder successful prosecutions, and disrupt relationships between the police and the communities they serve (particularly communities of color). In the words of one police captain, “whenever the police department shirks its unbiased responsibility. . .the community then is in for real trouble.” 

Although we know that there are right-wing extremists among the nation’s 800,000 law enforcement officers, we do not know the extent of that presence or the most common ideologies. We also lack a detailed understanding of the strategies and tactics right-wing extremists use to infiltrate and recruit within police ranks and the extent to which the extremist presence may imperil investigations, including those concerning criminal extremist activities. In addition, while much has been made of the threat posed by intentional infiltrations, a potentially greater concern is the organic and gradual radicalization of those already on the force.

This paper provides an overview of the current state of knowledge about police officer engagement in rightwing extremism, including the sustained use of racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language and stereotyping, both online and offline. After surveying the contemporary right-wing extremist landscape, this paper uses publicly available sources to explore in a preliminary way aspects of extremist penetration and recruitment, pre-employment screening challenges, police participation in extremist activity, and the role of social media platforms and the internet in enabling extremism. The paper concludes with a set of analytical questions that practitioners and policy-makers must answer if they hope to mitigate the rightwing extremist threat. 

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Details

  • Pages: 9
  • Document Number: IOP-2021-U-029673-Final
  • Publication Date: 4/1/2021