A demonstrator wears an Oath Keepers anti-government organization badge on a protective vest during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Leaked records purportedly from a far-right organization suggest that its effort to recruit law enforcement officers has found some success in America's largest cities. Investigations by NPR and WNYC/Gothamist show active officers in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago on the Oath Keepers membership roster, with Chicago showing the greatest representation of the three.
Extremism and policing experts say the findings are reason for concern, as the far-right paramilitary organization encourages members to uphold the law only as they interpret it. But defining a clear standard on officers' affiliation with groups such as the Oath Keepers is tricky, as it could run afoul of officers' free speech and free assembly rights.
A far-right paramilitary organization
The Oath Keepers have been on the radar of extremism researchers and federal law enforcement for about as long as the group has existed. But the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol dramatically intensified scrutiny of the group.
Founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper, the Oath Keepers target law enforcement and military personnel for recruitment. The paramilitary organization claims to defend the Constitution and reaffirms the oath of service to "support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
In practice, members of the loosely organized network have been a presence at armed standoffs against federal authorities in situations that its members believe constitute government overreach. More recently, Oath Keepers have shown up at racial justice protests in opposition to Black Lives Matter and far-left antifa activists. Part of the so-called patriot movement on the right, the group began as an anti-government movement, but refashioned itself as a pro-Trump extremist group, specifically targeting leftist groups and the supposed deep state.
Among those charged in the Jan. 6 attack are at least 21 people with alleged ties to the group. Prosecutors allege that members of the Oath Keepers conspired over the course of weeks and months to bring weapons and armor to the Washington, D.C., area ahead of the riot and used military-style tactics to breach the building.
Prosecutors have not named the head of the group, Rhodes, in any of those indictments, but he is identified as "Person One" in court papers, including indictments and statements of offense, suggesting that investigators are interested in what he was doing on the day of the riot. Rhodes was allegedly in Washington, D.C., that day, and met with Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol outside the building. Rhodes has not been accused of entering the Capitol himself, and he has said publicly that he was unaware of any plan by any Oath Keepers to attack the Capitol.
"Some of our guys got caught up and went inside the Capitol, which I think was a massive mistake, but I don't think there was any conspiracy on their part to do that," Rhodes told The Wichita Falls Times Record News in June.
In September, an anonymous hacker released records purportedly taken from the Oath Keepers' web servers, which NPR and WNYC/Gothamist obtained through the nonprofit journalist collective Distributed Denial of Secrets. Included in the leak were some of the group's chat logs, emails and a list of nearly 40,000 entries about membership information, seemingly including those currently and formerly on its membership rolls.
Comparing the membership roster to lists of officers in the Chicago Police Department, New York Police Department and Los Angeles-area departments, reporters were able to identify active officers who appeared to be on both. NPR and member station WNYC reached out to all those officers for comment. The list of officers in California comes from the database of profiles maintained by the state's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) as well as public payroll data. The California Reporting Project obtained the POST database current through April 13, 2021, through open records requests, and shared it with NPR.
Chicago Police Department: 13 active members
"I didn't even know this thing still existed," said one Chicago Police Department employee, speaking about the Oath Keepers. He agreed to speak to NPR on the condition that he not be named.
The uniformed employee, who said he could not recall when or why he joined the group, said he had let his Oath Keepers membership lapse many years ago. His listed address in the leaked database was that of a city police station where he confirmed he was working in 2009.
He was one of 13 active members of the Chicago Police Department that NPR identified as likely matches on the Oath Keepers list. The Chicago officers range in age from 42 to 54 and are white, Hispanic and of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage. Five of them work in "training and support," which includes firearms training.
Another CPD member who agreed only to speak to NPR on the condition that he not be named acknowledged joining the Oath Keepers more than a decade ago but said he let his membership lapse after four or five years.
"It's not a terrorist group," he said, adding that he had heard about the Oath Keepers from others on the police force. At the time, he said, he was among a handful of officers who joined because they felt that Chicago's ban on handguns, which the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately struck down, was unconstitutional. "Officers can't take away someone's gun rights because they live in Chicago," he said.
Despite telling NPR that he doesn't engage in social media, the CPD member shared personal details that matched to a Facebook page, including his name, military service and residences in both Chicago and a state other than Illinois. That page included several photos uploaded in March 2015 that included imagery to suggest affiliation with the Oath Keepers.
The day after the uniformed CPD employee spoke with NPR, the Facebook profile had been altered to change the name, remove biographical details and strip out photos that included Oath Keepers iconography.
Two others whom NPR identified as matches between the Oath Keepers database and the Chicago Police Department denied they ever joined the anti-government group, with one suggesting that a third party had signed him up for the group as "a sort of setup to get police officers." The others did not respond to voicemails and emails.
NPR reached out to the CPD but received no response. Chicago's Office of the Inspector General would not comment on the record.
'We have a problem with white supremacy'
NPR did not identify any active members of the Los Angeles Police Department within the Oath Keepers data. However, NPR found at least three people in the data leak whose information matched current employees of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's Department is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country and runs one of the largest jail systems in the world.
NPR left voicemails for and sent email messages to all three. When NPR reached one of the three officers on the phone, he said, "No comment," and hung up. The other two did not respond. In previous years, one of the three posted a link to the Oath Keepers' website on his public Twitter account.
In response to NPR's request for comment, a spokesperson for the sheriff's department wrote in a statement, "The Department was unaware of these allegations of association and will assign a supervisor to conduct an administrative inquiry. Until the conclusion of those supervisory inquiries, we are unable to comment further."
The leaders of local government agencies that oversee the sheriff's department said that they were concerned by NPR's findings, but not surprised, given recent scrutiny of deputy subgroups in the department — often referred to as "gangs" or "cliques."
"The sheriff's department in Los Angeles has extremist organizations within its ranks," said Max Huntsman, the county inspector general and a frequent critic of the department.
Those reports found a significant portion of sheriff's deputies have participated in subgroups, which have been accused of violent attacks and racist discrimination over decades. The reports specifically note one group active in the Compton station known as "The Executioners," whose members have a tattoo resembling a skeleton wearing a Nazi helmet. According to the RAND Corporation report, which was commissioned by county officials, a whistleblower alleged that "the Executioners encouraged shootings of civilians and had assaulted at least one other deputy at the station."
Huntsman said that the leader of the sheriff's department, Alex Villanueva, has failed to root out extremism in the ranks.
Priscilla Ocen, the chair of the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission, agreed.
"We have a problem with white supremacy in the LA County Sheriff's Department," said Ocen. "We have a problem with white supremacist gangs. And the sheriff who is tasked with managing this department has looked the other way."
Huntsman argued that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department appears to act as if it is above the law, particularly given the department's decision to disobey a county COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Villanueva has criticized the mandate and said he would not enforce it, because the measure would lead to a "mass exodus" of deputies who refuse to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Researchers and civil rights organizations have also noted the rise of a movement known as "constitutional sheriffs." The Anti-Defamation League said that the movement is based on the belief that "the county sheriff is the ultimate authority in the county, able to halt enforcement of any federal or state law or measure they deem unconstitutional."
In New York, an ongoing investigation
Following an investigation by WNYC/Gothamist in September that found at least two active members of the New York Police Department on the leaked Oath Keepers list, city leaders quickly vowed action. The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an investigation but has allowed the NYPD to conduct its own internal review into the two officers. A spokesperson for the mayor did not answer a detailed list of questions about the investigation's scope, but a recent statement from the police department suggests little may come of it.
"Although the investigation into the two members is still active, to date, the Internal Affairs Bureau has not found evidence supporting active memberships or participation in any Oath Keepers activities," it said.
"How do you balance an officer's freedom of speech, freedom of association, with the need to maintain public trust and to ensure that they're delivering constitutional policing?" said Sue Rahr, former sheriff of King County, Wash., and former executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. "It's a difficult balance."
Nonetheless, extremism experts say law enforcement officers who take an oath only to defend the Constitution as they interpret it should be a cause for concern.
"If an individual member of Oath Keepers disagrees with a Supreme Court ruling, Oath Keepers believe that they are entitled to not comply with that Supreme Court ruling because, as Oath Keepers would say, an unjust law is no law at all," said Sam Jackson, assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany. "That's really problematic to me and, really, I think undercuts our understanding of the rule of law and ideas about the universal application of law."
However, Rahr says there will likely be debate over which groups qualify as "extremist." And, Washington's step toward regulating this issue appears to make it an outlier among states.
"Although this has become a more prevalent conversation in jurisdictions across the country, many still do not specifically prohibit membership in extremist groups," said Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education at The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. "They often get around the issue by relying on policies that prohibit behavior that would be considered detrimental to the department."
For Rahr, however, departments that fail to tackle this issue risk losing public trust.
"Cognitive science is very, very clear that personal beliefs impact perception, and your perception impacts your judgment. And so, if an officer has a deeply held belief that is contrary to fair and equitable policing, that's going to create a problem," she said. "I think best practices would be to not hire [or] not allow certification of people who are actively involved in those groups."