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Capitol siege raises questions over extent of white supremacist infiltration of US police

The apparent participation of off-duty officers in the rally that morphed into a siege on the U.S. Capitol building Jan. 6 has revived fears about white supremacists within police departments.

These concerns are not new. White supremacy, the belief that white people are superior to other races, has long tainted elements within law enforcement. As I testified before Congress just months before this assault, there is a long history of racism in U.S. policing – and this legacy may have contributed to the violence in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Reports of officers involved in an attack in which the symbols and language of white supremacy were clearly on display are concerning.

But so too, I believe, is a policing culture that may have contributed to the downplaying of the risk of attack before it began and the apparent sympathetic response to attackers displayed by some police officers – they too hint at a wider problem.

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As someone who has researched and written about the chilling problem of white supremacists in law enforcement, I believe the failure to confront the problem has had deadly consequences.

Blue, but white first?

Racism and white supremacy are problems in society, not just the police. Just after the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, 9% of Americans responding to an ABC News/Washington News poll said that it was acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.

Meanwhile, a Reuters poll after the insurrection at the Capitol found that 12% of Americans supported the actions of those who took part in the attack.

But the percentage of police officers who hold views in support of white identity extremism may be at least as high or higher – white people are overrepresented on police forces cross the country. And surveys have found that police officers – especially white ones – diverge from the wider public on issues of race. A 2017 Pew poll found that 92% of white officers believe that the U.S. had made the reforms necessary for equal rights for Black Americans. This compared with just 29% of Black officers and 48% of the general public, including 57% of white Americans. This leads some to wonder whether police are more sympathetic to the rhetoric of Trump and others.

With their enormous power, department-issued weapons and access to sensitive information, police departments must be rid of officers with racist views for America’s security. But for the same reasons, police departments have become attractive recruiting grounds for white supremacist groups.