During the chaos at the Capitol, overwhelmed police officers confronted and combated a frenzied sea of rioters who transformed the seat of democracy into a battlefield. Now police chiefs across the country are confronting the uncomfortable reality that members of their own ranks were among the mob that faced off against other law enforcement officers.
At least 13 off-duty law enforcement officials are suspected of taking part in the riot, a tally that could grow as investigators continue to pore over footage and records to identify participants. Police leaders are turning in their own to the FBI and taking the striking step of reminding officers in their departments that criminal misconduct could push them off the force and behind bars.
The reckoning within police departments comes as plans for new demonstrations this weekend and on Inauguration Day are solidifying, with authorities warning of the potential for violence in state capitals. Participants are expected to protest election results that made Joe Biden president-elect.
“We are making clear that they have First Amendment rights like all Americans,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who on Thursday accepted the resignation of an 18-year veteran in his department because of his involvement in the riot, which followed a rally at which President Trump urged his supporters to not accept his defeat. “However, engaging in activity that crosses the line into criminal conduct will not be tolerated.”
The revelation that officers participated in the chaos was the latest hit for law enforcement’s reputation, coming on the heels of a year in which police violence spurred nationwide protests and activists called for cutting police funding. As photographs and videos of some off-duty officers at the riot emerged on social media, some residents back home felt betrayed, while police officials worried about a black eye for the entire profession’s credibility.
Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the behavior is so egregious that it is often fellow officers who are alerting police chiefs and others to their colleagues’ participation in the mob attack on the Capitol.
It marks a notable break in the so-called blue wall of silence, an aspect of police culture that encourages officers to turn a blind eye to misconduct by fellow officers. Craig Futterman, who directs the University of Chicago Law Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, said the Capitol riot was different.
“The ‘Code of Silence’ is fundamentally about loyalty to your fellow officer and that ‘no one understands what we’re going through but us,’ ” Futterman said. By contrast, there’s something “fundamentally anti-police” about storming the Capitol, he said.
That fellow police officers were the target of much of the mob’s brutality is another important factor that may have prompted whistleblowing. U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick was among the five people who died as a result of the riot. Dozens of other police officers were injured.
While some officers have said they were merely at the pro-Trump rally, rather than participating in the riot, others were found to have gone further.
In Rocky Mount, Va., the presence of two officers in the riot, which included displays of the Confederate battle flag, came to light after a colleague and another city official leaked photos of them inside the Capitol to an area activist. The president of the local Black Lives Matter chapter posted them on her Facebook page, and one of the officers quickly defended himself and threatened future violence.
“A legitimate republic stands on 4 boxes,” Officer Thomas Robertson, 47, wrote in response on his Facebook page. “The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box and then the cartridge box. We just moved to step 3. Step 4 will not be pretty...I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting a counter insurgency. Im about to become part of one, and a very effective one.”
Robertson and fellow officer Jacob Fracker, 27, were both arrested Wednesday by the FBI and are so far the only law enforcement officers facing federal charges, which include one count each of “knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority” and one count each of “violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.”
A Washington Post analysis shows that at least 29 current and former officers attended the Jan. 6 rally, with some proceeding to the Capitol, according to a review of officers’ social media accounts, FBI reports and news reports.
Of those, at least 13 officers are under investigation for possible participation in the rioting, as well more than a dozen Capitol Police officers who may have assisted the mob that seized the Capitol.
The officers — and at least one police chief — came from tiny departments with less than a handful of officers to large agencies with thousands on their force.
Reports of police among the rioters at the Capitol has police leaders worried about erosion of the public’s trust in law enforcement.
“It creates an issue where the public has a hard time believing that the . . . decisions they make off-duty do not impact their choices and decisions they make while on duty,” said Andrew Walsh, a deputy chief with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. That force is investigating reports that “employees” may have been at the Capitol, he said.
Police keen on Trump
Since the start of his presidency, Trump styled himself as a champion of law enforcement who would restore to policing a level of respect, freedom and power he perceived to have been diminished under President Barack Obama.
Even before Trump declared himself the “law-and-order candidate” at a 2016 campaign event, he portrayed use of force against racial justice protesters and suspects in police custody as virtuous: As a candidate, he offered to pay the legal fees of his supporters who assaulted protesters disrupting his rallies. Not long after taking office in 2017, he told a crowd of police not to worry about injuring the people they arrest.
In the four years of Trump’s administration, he has reversed police reform efforts and curbed the use of “pattern and practice” investigations into police departments for civil rights violations — something that had been a staple of the Obama-era Justice Department and is expected to resume under Biden. Police were keen to return the favor when Trump ran for a second term, with many police unions enthusiastically offering their endorsement.
Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he was “not too terribly surprised” that police were among those at the rally that preceded the riot, citing what he called “some pretty strident” police union support for Trump and “an authoritarian sort of regime.”
Police unions and policing groups backed Trump in the 2020 election, with the head of the National Association of Police Organizations last summer deeming him “the most pro-law enforcement president we’ve ever had.”
However, union leaders said they are shocked by how some of their members appeared to cross the line at the Capitol. They also said officers who breached the Capitol should not expect their unions’ support in their legal battles.
“We took an oath to protect the Constitution and the rule of law,” said Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “When people decide they are going to violate that — they are alone.”
Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said he had joked with Acevedo about how absurd it would be for any of the department’s 5,300 officers to be involved in the mob that stormed the Capitol.
He said the resignation of 48-year-old Tam Pham, after being identified as having been at the Capitol, has not changed how he is communicating with his members. Griffith believes the line some officers crossed is so bright that it doesn’t need to be explained to the rest of the force. Attempts to reach Pham were not successful.
“We took an oath to uphold the law, not violate it,” Griffith said. “You have to have common sense and walk away. Think about it. There are [Capitol] officers being beaten. How, as an officer, do you not help out? How do you not understand that you shouldn't be there?”
David Ellis, the police chief in Troy, N.H., attended the Trump rally. As he approached the Capitol and saw the mob was pushing past the Capitol Police, he understood he needed to turn away, he said.
As he boarded a charter bus at Union Station with the rioting underway, he gave an interview to New York magazine, saying the violence was “not going to solve a thing” and characterizing the way the Capitol Police were being treated as “ridiculous.” He defended going to the rally, saying, “There’s a lot of Trump supporters that are awesome people. Like me.”
Ellis’s small department has three full-time officers, including him. Richard Thackston, chairman of the Troy Board of Selectmen, has defended Ellis. But the blowback on town officials was immediate and fierce. More than 100 people sent emails and voice-mail messages threatening violence. Troy Town Hall is now closed indefinitely.
“They are saying we are members of the Klan. They are calling us Nazis. They are saying we should be taken to a firing squad,” Thackston said. “There is a line for us. I don’t think we tell people they cannot attend rallies. They have First Amendment rights.”
'I feel betrayed'
Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said for years police chiefs have wrestled with racist, white supremacist and violent rhetoric that some officers post on social media.
In those instances, Wexler said, disciplinary action may be taken since such actions are often considered “conduct unbecoming an officer.” It tarnishes the credibility of the officer, making it difficult for them to testify in their own criminal cases, impairing their ability to fulfill their job duties.
“This is an evolution, a big leap from the difficult waters that police departments have waded through in recent years as officers take to social media to express their political and sometimes racist views,” Wexler said. “What happened at the Capitol the other day is new territory. Going from freedom of speech to participating in a riot where a police officer dies, that takes it to a new level.”
Brian Levin, a former police officer and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California, said white supremacy and far-right-wing groups are successfully recruiting local law enforcement officers. They also encourage their young members to enter law enforcement, he said.
“We are encountering a new insurgency, as far-right extremists become more active, as their connections to mainstream politics becomes attenuated, but police agencies have yet to adapt to this new threat which directly impacts their ranks and also national security,” he said.
People living in the communities where the officers work, who have forged relationships with them, say they are disappointed and hurt.
Bridgette Craighead saved videos of her dancing with Robertson, the Rocky Mount officer, at a Black Lives Matter event she organized in her Virginia hometown over the summer. She said she also became close to Officer Fracker.
She was proud of the relationship they forged.
“I thought we would be an example for the rest of the world,” Craighead said. “When we left our last protest, they told us they loved us. They escorted us home. Now I feel betrayed.”
On Jan. 9, three days after the riot, Craighead received a copy of a photo of Robertson and Fracker posing inside the Capitol during the siege. They were standing in front of a statute of Revolutionary War Gen. John Stark, who is known for a toast he once wrote — “Live free or die.” Fracker is holding his middle finger up to the camera.
She quickly posted it on her Facebook page. The next day, the two officers were placed on paid leave and the FBI was notified, according to a joint statement by Police Chief Ken Criner and Town Manager C. James Ervin. Criner and Ervin did not return calls seeking additional comment.
In response to Craighead’s post, Robertson, who, according to local news reports is an Army veteran who received sniper training and served in Iraq, said he did not see a conflict or disparity between supporting local Black protesters and his protest that involved a breach of the Capitol.
“I can protest for what I believe in and still support your protest fro [sic] what you believe in,” he wrote. “Just saying...after all, I fought for the right to do it.”
Fracker, who military.com said previously served as a Marine, also defended himself on Facebook, saying he believed he did nothing wrong.
“Lol to anyone who’s possibly concerned about the picture of me going around,” he wrote. “Sorry I hate freedom? Not like I did anything illegal, way too much to lost [sic] to go there, but y’all do what you feel you need to do.”
Three days later, Fracker and Robertson were arrested by the FBI.
Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.