Hacked data: Police officers sought to join extremist Oath Keepers group after Jan. 6 insurrection

Active-duty law enforcement officers sought out extremist paramilitary group after failed Trump coup attempt
Supporters of Donald Trump wear a variety of insignia as they stream into the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block Congress from certifying Trump’s loss of the 2020 presidential election. January 6, 2021. Photo: Brett Davis/Flickr

First published at Daily Kos

A hacker’s release of data from the Oath Keepers organization—which played a key role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection—revealed the breadth and depth of the penetration into the ranks of law-enforcement authorities by such far-right extremists. It also revealed the importance of weeding them out from the ranks of police officers—and the urgency of acting quickly.

Not only was there a surge in interest in joining the group after the Jan. 6 violence, but the interest was pronounced among law-enforcement officers. A survey of the data by USA Today found more than 200 people who signed up to join the group over the past decade who identified themselves as members of a police agency; of those, 21 are still serving today.

Despite the group’s well-established role in the insurrection, Jason Wilson of The Guardian found that hundreds of people either joined the Oath Keepers anew or renewed their membership afterward. These included people who cited their military ranks when they joined; among their numbers were combat veterans, national guardsmen, retired servicepersons, and members of the clergy. Others who joined were connected to the firearms industry or engaged in security contracting.

“The Oath Keepers subscribe to anti-government conspiracy theories, so the fact that officers belong to an organization that believes in this type of stuff really calls into question their discretion and their ability to make sound judgments,” domestic-terrorism analyst Daryl Johnson told USA Today.

The active law-enforcement officers identified on the membership list include:

  • Riverside County, California, Sheriff Chad Bianco, who told USA Today he enrolled in 2014 with a single year’s membership.
  • A police officer in the small town of Ferndale, Washington, who has been embroiled in civil-rights disputes there.
  • An officer at the Louisville Metro Police Department, who was involved in a 2018 shooting.
  • Several New York Police Department officers, including a former U.S. Army member.
  • A former U.S. Army captain who joined the Chicago Police Department and is still there.
  • An 80-year-old, part-time officer at the Ashley County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas.
  • A corrections officer in Riverside, California.

Sheriff Bianco has long been aligned with far-right “constitutionalist” beliefs. He announced earlier this summer that he would refuse to enforce the state’s COVID-19 mandates, proclaiming himself as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.”

Another officer on the list—Maj. Eben Bratcher, operations chief with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona—left a note for the Oath Keepers when he signed up: “We have 85 sworn officers and Border (of) Mexico on the South and California on the West. I’ve already introduced your web site to dozens of my Deputies.” He told USA Today that he didn’t recall writing that. He said he received newsletters from the group for “some time” but dropped out “due to the sheer volume of email I received.”

The Ferndale officer, identified by BuzzFeed as Scott Langton, reportedly inquired with the Oath Keepers on Feb. 4, saying: “I’m not looking to be on some Liberal hit list.” Langton has been sued at least twice for allegedly committing civil rights and use of force abuses while in uniform; one suit was settled, the other remains active in federal court. He was placed on administrative leave after his attempts to join the Oath Keepers were revealed.

A common misconception shared by most police officers is that they have a First Amendment right to say just about anything on social media or in public, Val Van Brocklin, a former federal prosecutor who trains police departments on using social media, told USA Today. But people in charge of enforcing the law are also expected to be nonpartisan and unbiased in that work, and spouting far-right extremism places a cloud over entire departments.

“The vast majority of cops in the country don’t understand this,” Van Brocklin said. “A public employer does not have to pay you for your insubordination or dishonorable conduct that sullies the badge and the uniform.”

“I don’t think police officers should be involved with extremist groups,” Heidi Beirich, Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told USA Today. “You are a part of the government, you represent the full, whole community as a police officer, and there’s obviously a problem when you’re in a group that’s questioning the government’s right to do the things that the government has the right to do.”

When Daily Dot analyzed the data, it also found significant numbers of Oath Keepers within the ranks of the U.S. military, as well as within the federal bureaucracy. Some 160 alleged members shared their official military or government emails with the militia. Some 28 email addresses used the .gov domain, including those from local city governments to sheriff’s departments.

Oath Keepers within such federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration show up within the data as well. One domain originated from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear weapons facility.

Effectively confronting far-right extremism must begin with police reform, and particularly the task of weeding extremists out of our police forces. The public cannot expect agencies tasked with enforcing the laws that prohibit extremist violence to do so seriously when those same extremists permeate their ranks.