Would you trust a police officer to report a crime if you knew they were a far-right extremist? A somewhat loaded question, I’m aware. But think about it for a moment — if you knew an officer was a devoted Ku Klux Klan member, would you really trust them to impartially and fairly look at a situation if you have to report a crime?
Sure, this may be hypothetical, but don’t dismiss its relevance. Although the KKK may be much smaller than it has been in the past, white supremacist attitudes and broader, far-right extremism are still alive and well in the United States. According to CNN, the New York Police Department has recently “launched an internal review of two active officers after their names and phone numbers were reportedly found in leaked data that apparently belongs to the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government militia.” If the name “Oath Keepers” sounds familiar, that’s because they were one of the groups present at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol which left five people dead.
Why should you care about something like this? You have no idea when the person holding the baton may be bigoted against a group that you identify with. Unlike many other occupations, police officers are supposed to be a public service which anyone can call in an emergency situation. It is paramount for communities to trust the police officers that are assigned to “protect” them, but that means certain extremist ideologies may pose a problem, as these ideologies can drive these two groups apart. Consequently, when citizens don’t work with police because of justifiable fears of bias and extremism, “good” police officers can’t do their job and everyone is made worse off in the process — a genuinely unfortunate series of events, especially for those community members who need help.
If we broaden this conversation, this problem isn’t just with how we treat, but also how we think about extremism. When people think of “white supremacist attitudes,” many think of the most extreme — calls for genocide, the KKK and neo-Nazis, instead of much more subtle attitudes, like certain preconceptions about the criminality of “certain types of people.” Many find it hard to conceive of a neo-Nazi who’s an office worker by day and caring husband or father by night. When we narrow our scope to just highly publicized acts of terror, we forget a lot of these examples are not representative. Subconscious beliefs and biases are problematic, even dangerous, before they reach outright genocidal intent. Seeing oneself as the last bastion before social collapse, having an authority complex and rejecting the whole of modern social science can lead someone to use unnecessary force and target the most vulnerable in society, without even realizing it.
In the same vein, we also fail to distinguish different types of extremism and their relative threats, which can be especially damaging for and by police officers. Extremism on the left is often exaggerated while extremism on the right tends to be overlooked or minimized. Don’t believe me? The Anti-Defamation League published a report on extremism in 2020 and found that the domestic, extremist-related killings by perpetrator affiliation was heavily ideologically skewed. The report reads, “All but one of the 17 murders (94 percent) documented in this report had ties to forms of right-wing extremism,” with white supremacists being responsible for a majority. Left-wing extremists were at fault for only 6 percent of deaths. When we look at the same measure from 2011 to 2020, we see a very similar trend, with right-wing extremists being at fault for 75 percent of deaths and left-wing extremists for 4 percent, with the rest mostly being due to “domestic Islamist extremism.”
So, what’s the relevance to police? This kind of bias toward extremism is perfectly exemplified by two events — the militarization and downright fascistic actions of some police officers during the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd and the failure to protect the Capitol on Jan. 6, which could have easily left multiple lawmakers dead. When fascism is unrecognized and misunderstood, rioters marched into the Capitol chanting, “Hang Mike Pence” with makeshift gallows built outside. When progressive social movements are demonized and hyper-fixated on, Black activists are scapegoated, beaten and have their humanity stripped while the most rabid reactionaries create groups like “Blue Lives Matter” to peddle in the same talking points as — what a surprising coincidence of associations — the same fascists who, on Jan. 6, beat a Capitol police officer to his death in the hospital the next day.
Extremism in police ranks is a danger to all members of society, especially marginalized communities who have been victimized for centuries. If we want a policing force that is even slightly more just, weeding out the most extreme police officers, comprehensive police training and education on current sociological evidence to understand the context of their work and accountability measures, including criminal prosecutions, are absolutely necessary. This is by no means a totality of police reform, but instead just some of the building blocks desperately needed.
Eleanor Gully is a senior triple-majoring in economics, French and philosophy, politics and law.