As federal and local authorities investigate the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol building, a disturbing development has emerged: A number of law enforcement officials from across the country are suspected to have participated.
Police departments in Houston, Las Vegas, New York, Philadelphia, and, other communities, along with federal officials, are investigating and suspending officers who may have participated in the riot, which left five people, including a US Capitol Police officer, dead. The Globe reported that the Boston Police Department is also investigating whether one of its officers took part in a nearby rally and the ensuing siege. The violent attack — in which members of the mob carried Confederate flags, nooses, and other symbols of hate — sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives, delayed the congressional count of state-certified presidential election results, and led to President Trump being impeached for his role in inciting his supporters.
Sadly, the participation of law enforcement officers can’t be considered a surprise. In recent decades, police departments have ignored — or been forced by onerous union contracts to tolerate — a rising tide of racism in their ranks, which is often plainly visible in officers’ public social media posts. By failing to root out officers who espouse such hateful views — and to set standards and educate their forces — municipalities have given a green light to extremism.
Even the US Capitol Police has suspended several officers as it undergoes its own investigation into whether they offered assistance or support to the rioters who breached the Capitol. Acting Chief Yogananda “Yogi” Pittman said in a statement that the department “will investigate these behaviors for disciplinary action, up to, and including, termination.” ProPublica reports that hundreds of Black police officers have warned for years of racism in the USCP.
Swiftly punishing police officers found to have participated in, or provided assistance to, the insurrection in Washington is crucial, but not sufficient. Police departments and police unions across the nation should make clear that the role of police is to protect and serve their communities, and draw a hard line by imposing zero-tolerance policies that demand any law enforcement officials who participate in any antidemocratic, white supremacist, or hate-driven demonstrations turn in their badges. Likewise, departments can’t continue to make excuses when officers express hateful views or skirt their responsibility to improve policing culture. Mocking minority groups on Facebook or in a union newsletter isn’t harmless venting or a matter of free speech; it’s a clear indicator that an officer is unfit for the job.
The brazenness of the actions of police officers suspected to have engaged in the insurrection underscores the need for police leaders to act decisively to stamp it out. Many of the police departments have received information about the alleged participation of their officers through social media and other videos showing law enforcement officials among the mob.
Take for example Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson, members of the Rocky Mount, Va., police department, who are under investigation after taking a selfie inside the Capitol building — in which Fracker made an obscene gesture — in front of a statue of American Revolution general John Stark during the siege. Robertson, according to a Justice Department statement, also posted on social media: “CNN and the Left are just mad because we actually attacked the government who is the problem and not some random small business . . . . The right IN ONE DAY took the [expletive] US Capitol. Keep poking us.”
While officers, like all citizens, have First Amendment speech and assembly rights, those rights end long before the point of attacking the very government they serve under, or expressing hateful sentiments toward members of the communities they are duty-bound to protect.
This is especially true given the historical and longstanding connections between some police officials and right-wing and white supremacist groups. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice found an uptick in the number of law enforcement officers engaged in “far-right militant activities” in more than a dozen states since 2000.
“Research organizations have uncovered hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating in racist, nativist, and sexist social media activity,” the report stated.
Police organizations have rightly denounced the insurgent attack. In a statement, National Fraternal Order of Police president Patrick Yoes praised the bravery of US Capitol police and the work of investigators who have already arrested dozens of people found to have taken part in the riot. “We look forward to seeing these criminals prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Yoes said.
That should apply to the police too. And just as union leaders demand swift action be taken when officers are attacked, they should also not use collective bargaining agreements as shields to block the ability of police departments to hold officers accountable when they engage in antidemocratic, hateful, or violent actions or spread bigoted rhetoric.
Police leaders can take a page from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s condemnation of members of the military found to be among the insurrectionists.
“As service members, we must embody the values and ideals of the nation,” the Joint Chiefs wrote in an extraordinary memo this week that was both a condemnation of the Jan. 6 attack and a warning against further potential unrest surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Biden. “We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.”
The same is true for police, and police leaders must make that clear.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.