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Acting D.C. police chief wants officers examined for extremist affiliations

Robert J. Contee III, acting D.C. police chief, seen in January. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Pool)

The acting chief of the D.C. police says he wants to have background checks conducted on all officers and employees to identify any who might align with extremist groups.

Robert J. Contee III said he is meeting with police department attorneys and is in discussions with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) about his plan to come up with a policy on extremist groups or ideologies that the city would deem inappropriate for police department employees to take part in. He also wants to hire an outside firm to conduct such investigations later this year.

After the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, police leaders are under pressure to root out those with ties to extremist groups. The Capitol mob — some of whom displayed emblems of extremist groups — allegedly included off-duty law enforcement officers from outside the District.

“We have to do a top-to-bottom look for everything. MPD is a microcosm of the society that we live in. We have to identify those things and root them out immediately,” Contee said.

After Capitol riot, police chiefs work to root out officers with ties to extremist groups

Although the department does some have hiring safeguards in place, there is no written policy that specifically bars participation in or adopting behaviors of extremist or hate groups, Contee said. He said he wants to set out rules and make clear what behaviors could result in discipline or termination.

“It’s not okay for a police officer to be a member of a Nazi group, and we don’t have any policy that says we can’t be a member of such,” he said. “We don’t have anything specific that addresses these hate groups that prohibits hiring someone if we find they have posted on social media groups involving hate speech.”

Contee stressed that he is still working with city officials to determine what such an investigation will entail, especially given personal rights concerns of more than 3,700 employees. He said he also plans to contact the police union.

Contee said one way could be an examination of employees’ social media. Another method, he said, could be requiring employees to sign annual statements agreeing to not participate in such behavior or risk discipline.

The acting chief acknowledged the challenges of relying on social media alone. Many groups on Facebook are “secret,” meaning they can be found only if a user is invited to join by an existing member. Others are “closed” with content accessible only after an administrator of the private group approves a request to join. While most departments say they review social media posts during an officer’s hiring process, the anonymous nature of social media and online privacy protections make identifying officers who have posted extremist comments or belong to such groups difficult.

And even before any examination, police would need to decide what types of behavior linked to extremist groups would warrant targeting. Would the department, for instance, cite extremist or hate groups as defined by the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center? How would the department determine whether an employee’s philosophies were aligned with any group?

“It’s in the infancy stage. I can’t tell you what it’s going to take to get there. But at the end of the day, we want strong policy in place that would prohibit members of being involved in any behavior associated with extreme, violent or anti-government groups,” Contee said. “I want us to be the blueprint for law enforcement going forward.”

Greggory Pemberton, chairman of the D.C. police union, said he understood the need for such an investigation but said he was concerned about how it would be conducted.

“You don’t have a bunch of Klansmen running around here. If we did, they would be found out pretty quickly. You can’t hide those kind of things,” he said.

Pemberton said he was concerned how the department would delve into employees’ private lives and how officials would make judgments about what is found.

“I am concerned about personal rights and combing through people’s lives. And how are they going to identify those people, and what is the process going to look like confirming what they think they found?” Pemberton said. The union leader said Contee’s “intent is coming from a good place” but added that the union needed to see more details.

Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and white supremacist groups, said groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers seek out members of law enforcement, active duty and retired, because they “know their way around firearms” and they can read police tactics and help during demonstrations or other actions.

Hayden said police agencies need to “make sure these guys are not getting into police forces to begin with,” which starts with thorough background checks. He said agencies also need to employ experts who understand signs, insignia and tattoos used by extremist groups.

“We must push more aggressively, locally and federally, to give police the resources to identify who might be an extremist in the first place,” Hayden said. “It doesn’t have to be McCarthy-like, looking at every meme they are posting, but it has to be more rigorous.”

Police agencies already tread a delicate balance between protecting the free speech rights of officers and ensuring they meet general standards that call for honesty and integrity.

Chuck Wexler, who heads the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, said the participation of some off-duty officers in the Capitol riot has forced departments nationwide to confront the possibility of extremists in their ranks.

“This is where this country is right now,” Wexler said. “This is no longer a free-speech issue. It is an issue affecting the safety of Americans. Their right to express their First Amendment thoughts ended at the point they pushed over police officers and went into the U.S. Capitol.”

Still, Wexler said, it could be difficult for police chiefs to identify groups they do not want their officers to affiliate with. “The discussion is still evolving on what exactly constitutes a domestic terrorist organization.”

Last fall, the Lafayette, Ind., police department said it terminated a recruit officer who participated in a neo-Nazi Internet chat forum.

In Columbus, Ohio, the police department has been sued four times recently by current or former Black officers alleging racism and discriminatory misconduct. The department, a spokesman said, does background checks looking for extremism in individuals who apply to become cadets, but such investigations are not done on existing officers.

In D.C., the department has seen its own challenges. Some residents have criticized officers in the department for what Black Lives Matter D.C. calls overly aggressive policing of Black and Brown people.

Last year, a 16-year police veteran filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court, claiming the department retaliated against her after she raised concerns about the conduct of some supervisors, including allegations that officers had been instructed to conduct unlawful searches of groups of Black men. In a filing with the court, the city said the complaint was “without sufficient information” and therefore denied the claims.

In 2019, a 27-year veteran Black homicide detective alleged racism and ageism after he got into a violent scuffle with two White officers inside a Northwest D.C. police substation.

And in 2017, a D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed a gun case against a man after defense attorneys expressed concern that the officers involved in the arrest were seen wearing a controversial T-shirt in the courthouse that depicted an image of the Grim Reaper with a pre-Christian style of cross embedded in a circle, a symbol that an advocacy group says is racist.

Contee said none of those incidents revealed evidence that the officers involved were linked to an extremist group. But he said such incidents could lead to a such perceptions among the public and among other officers.

“We need to have an initiative in place, so we can emphatically say to the community we have something in form of policy that says what is unacceptable behavior and what is something that warrants discipline or even separation from the department,” Contee said. “I want the community to know this guy is going to be looking at things in this department through a different lens.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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