Can Police Agencies Weed Out Far-Right Extremists?

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Leaders in law enforcement say that public servants must be held to a higher standard than private individuals and in a recent online conference agreed to work together to try and block members of far-right organizations or others with radical views from entering their ranks, reports the New York Times. At least 30 police or other law enforcement officers attended the demonstration on January 6, with many now facing internal investigations and three thus far being arrested on federal charges related to breaching the Capitol. 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 dismissed 13 officers out of the 72 who were placed on administrative leave because of racist Facebook posts. 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 secret white supremecist groups of hostile influence on police departments in which they are involved.

The number of extremists within law enforcement is unknown, with the police calling them a fringe, just as in the general public. With 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, many of them small and lacking resources, the rules and practices for how to weed out people perceived as threats are inconsistent at best and dismissal is not automatic. The Supreme Court has narrowed free speech rights for public servants speaking in an official capacity on matters of public interest, experts noted, and in those instances when the public good outweighs that of the individual. But Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who contested being fired over gang membership, for example, were sometimes reinstated. The F.B.I. has called domestic extremism a significant threat, but has failed to develop a response to adherents in law enforcement, said Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who works on law enforcement reform at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Another key issue is balancing First Amendment rights against the potential fallout for any agency.

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