Efforts to eliminate extremists among police meet resistance
In the battle to eradicate extremism from the police ranks, lawmakers from California to Minnesota came up with solutions they thought were straightforward.
Some laws would empower police to conduct more rigorous background checks on recruits, allowing them to scan social media to ensure new officers are not members of hate groups. Other laws would make it easier for departments to fire officers with ties to extremists.
But lawmakers scrambling to push through these measures in recent months have faced a slew of hurdles and somewhat unexpected opposition, ranging from simple Republican versus Democrat clashes to deep questions about protecting constitutional rights. .
Last month, a police officer in Fresno, Calif., Was fired after videos showed he supported the Proud Boys during a protest. “Such ideologies, behaviors and affiliations have no place in law enforcement and will not be tolerated within the ranks of the Fresno Police Department,” said the police chief.
Yet when state lawmakers recently proposed legislation to give police departments more power to take out officers with extremist ties, they encountered resistance.
Brian Marvel, president of the California Peace Officer Research Association, said in a statement that the organization supported the idea but not the drafted legislation. It would “violate a person’s individual rights,” he said, and possibly prevent someone from becoming an officer on the basis of personal beliefs, religion or other interests.
Police officers, like everyone else, enjoy First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, so the challenge for lawmakers is how to preserve those rights while preventing extremists from breaking out. infiltrate the ranks.
California is one of four states, including Oregon, Minnesota and Tennessee, along with Washington, DC, to have proposed new laws to give law enforcement more power to exclude agents linked to the ‘extremism.
Such efforts have simmered across the country for years, spurred on by FBI reports dating back more than 15 years that document a concerted effort by white supremacists and other extremist organizations to infiltrate police.
The events of January 6 gave new impetus to those efforts, with more than 30 active or retired police officers coming under scrutiny for joining the protests in Washington, and at least seven accused of taking storming the Capitol.
“When January 6 happened, it gave an even more visceral idea of why this kind of legislation was needed,” said Ash Kalra, Democratic member of the California assembly. “This is a long-term problem that hasn’t really been addressed directly by law enforcement.”
Racist gangs among Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies have been a problem for decades. Law enforcement officers in Virginia, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska and Louisiana have been sacked in recent years for links to the Ku Klux Klan. And various agencies have been rocked by revelations of police officers exchanging derogatory remarks about minorities on social media, with the Philadelphia Police Department firing 13 of the 72 officers it put on leave in 2019 because of these posts on Facebook.
There is little reliable data on the number of U.S. police officers with explicit links to extremism, although senior officials have repeatedly called domestic extremism a growing threat.
“We are increasingly concerned about violent extremism and domestic terrorism,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week.
Many lawmakers say the spread across the country is reflected in law enforcement.
Police officers themselves, at least those who recognize there is a problem, tend to welcome the idea that closer scrutiny will keep bad officers away. The major California unions supported the general idea of a closer scrutiny of candidates, but they opposed the first bill in February that would reject all candidates who had been members of hate groups, participated in their activities or publicly expressed their sympathy.
They feared that the legal basis for defining extremist groups was too broad and that members of organizations opposed to abortion or same-sex marriage would be trapped in the law.
California lawmakers negotiated compromise language for the bill with major police unions in Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco, who then approved the change. The agreed language reads: “No member of a hate group should be a member of law enforcement and if you are a member of one of those groups do not apply, you have no place in our profession. ” Yet some police officers and unions in California are rejecting the amended legislation over civil rights and free speech concerns.
Some jurists agree. The proposed measures are all doomed to spark constitutional challenges, said Philip M. Stinson, a former police officer who is now a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. It would be better to ban certain types of behavior rather than focus on belonging to an organization, he said.
“The idea that we can systematically reform the police service through a multitude of short-term legislative measures, I don’t think that’s possible,” he said.
In Oregon, State Representative Janelle Bynum began drafting a new bill last summer to screen potential agents more closely.
Given Oregon’s history of opposing changing police laws, she and her allies consulted with senior police officers statewide before drafting the bill. They focused closely on screening officers before they entered the force, allowing law enforcement to examine candidates’ social media posts. While the legislation aims to establish a uniform background check for Oregon police officers, it leaves it to law enforcement agencies to set their own rules on issues such as hate speech. The bill declares that “racism has no place in public safety”.
“We are trying to thread this needle to ensure these rights, but also not to tolerate any type of hate group,” said State Representative Ronald H. Noble, former police chief of a small town who is entered Oregon House after 28 years with law enforcement. A Republican, he forged a rare bipartisan effort with Bynum, a Democrat, to craft the bill.
Daryl Turner, the head of the Portland Police Association, said he approved of the increased scrutiny because it left individual departments to deal with extremist candidates.
Officers must meet high standards, Turner said in a statement, and “the extent to which this legislation accomplishes this will largely depend on careful and careful implementation at the agency level.”
In Washington, DC, new police chief Robert Contee III has expressed support for an independent police screening mechanism that is expected to become law by the fall. The measure received little criticism there, which the city councilor who proposed it, Janeese Lewis George, attributed to a year of traumatic protests over police and social justice issues, as well as at the storming of the Capitol.
Standards vary widely among police departments for how to deal with extremists, as many of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States define theirs. They also have their own contractual language, and state labor laws differ.
In Minnesota and Tennessee, proposed laws prohibit current officers from being affiliated with white supremacy or other hate groups. The Minnesota bill is subject to negotiations between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic majority in the House, while in Tennessee, the Republican-controlled Senate has already blocked the bill.
In Minnesota, the death of George Floyd at the hands of white policeman Derek Chauvin, convicted of murder last month, has brought a new examination of the relationship between Minneapolis police and the city’s black and Latin communities.
State Representative Cedrick Frazier, a Democrat, said the circumstances would facilitate the passage of a new law prohibiting police affiliation with white supremacist organizations, even if Chauvin was not directly linked to any. He was wrong.
While Frazier’s Republican colleagues did not object to the idea, they said they found it insufficient. State Representative Eric Lucero sought to add other organizations to the ban, including al-Qaida, al-Shabab and Hezbollah, as well as members of anarchist, environmental and animal rights groups.
The bill was withdrawn from the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee following a straight-line vote. Among the amendments, Frazier sought to preserve a clause centered on white supremacy.
“This is about building trust within the black community, and a big part of it is about solving the problem of white supremacy,” he said.
In Oregon, Bynum said the bill was prompted both by the intense protests of the past year and by past conflicts.
One was an extended episode involving Portland policeman Mark Kruger, who was off duty when he hung plaques honoring five Nazi-era German soldiers in a park in the city around the year 2000. A decade later, when they were exposed, a critical council concluded that Kruger had brought “discredit and disgrace” to the police.
When Kruger retaliated that he was just a history buff exercising his First Amendment rights and threatened to sue, the city settled down, withdrawing the criticism while undoing his suspension with 80 hours of vacation plus $ 5,000.
After 26 years in the force, he retired as captain in 2020, shortly before Bynum began formulating the new law.
For Bynum, a statement of principle against extremism enshrined in law would be an important first step.
“Basically you have to move the ball,” she said.
Katie Benner contributed reporting.
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