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Police Departments Search For Political Extremism In Ranks Following Capitol Riot


We know a number of off-duty police took part in the Trump rally on January 6, which turned into a siege on the U.S. Capitol. A Houston officer who allegedly entered the Capitol now faces federal charges. He has resigned. And other police departments are investigating whether any of their officers broke the law in Washington, D.C. But they're also deciding if the events at the Capitol changed where to draw the line for officers when it comes to politics and free speech. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: As far as we know, the biggest contingent of off-duty cops at that rally came from Seattle - at least five officers. They're being investigated, and there's no public evidence yet that they broke the law. Still, alarm bells are going off for some people in the city.


DOUGLAS WAGONER: What more can we do to help understand how deep the iceberg really is here?

KASTE: Douglas Wagoner is a member of the Community Police Commission, a citizen advisory group which discussed the matter in a Zoom meeting.


WAGONER: Because I just - I can't think of anything that's more problematic for trust between SPD and the community, especially at this already tenuous moment, than to find out that there are potential officers potentially involved in this attempted coup.

KASTE: Another member of the group, a Black officer named Mark Mullens, talked about colleagues who've worn MAGA hats to the precinct.


MARK MULLENS: To me, that's like wearing a Confederate flag or bringing a Confederate flag to work.

KASTE: Underneath this discussion, there's a deeper question. Is it still acceptable for cops to be pro-Trump? It's not a call that Andrew Myerberg wants to make. He runs Seattle's Office of Police Accountability, which is investigating the five officers. His focus is on whether they broke the law in Washington, not the beliefs that took them there.

ANDREW MYERBERG: I think people are entitled to their political views, and I don't think it is my job to be policing those political views unless there's some component of it that clearly violates SPD policy.

KASTE: At the same time, Myerberg says it's no secret that police are often more conservative than the community.

MYERBERG: It certainly creates friction when law enforcement is policing a city that's as progressive as Seattle or Washington, D.C., or Portland. There is this natural friction there.

KASTE: Context often plays a role in whether a cop's political views are acceptable. Georgetown Law professor Christy Lopez is an expert in this area. She says courts apply a balancing test - a police officer's free speech rights on one side and on the other, there's a police department's interest in protecting its reputation and legitimacy.

CHRISTY LOPEZ: What does that tell us, for example, if an officer wants to wear a MAGA hat to a baseball game? Is that balancing test different on January 5 than it is on January 7? Maybe. Maybe that's different after we have come to believe that Trump actually instigated an attack on the Capitol.

KASTE: Lopez isn't saying that the balance has changed in that way, just that it could. With that in mind, some police officers are now scrubbing their social media just in case. Houston Police Officers' Union President Doug Griffith says some cops there became concerned when the chief recently vowed to search for political extremists in the ranks.

DOUG GRIFFITH: We received several calls from our members asking, how is he going to do this? What does this mean? Does this mean if I liked a Trump tweet that I'm going to be disciplined?

KASTE: Griffith assured the officers that that would not happen, though he also gives them this advice.

GRIFFITH: If you can't post on your church bulletin board what you're going to put on Facebook or Twitter, then you probably shouldn't put it out there.

KASTE: Griffith doesn't think the many Trump supporters in law enforcement, people like himself, now have to worry about being penalized for that support. But when it comes to drawing lines, he has one of his own. He says all officers, regardless of political sympathies, need to respect the nation's electoral process and the fact that Joe Biden is now the president.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.