The saturation of the ranks of our police forces with far-right extremists is one of the harsh realities of American life that bubbled up during the police brutality protests of 2020 and was laid bare by the Jan. 6 insurrection. The presence of these extremists not only is a serious security and enforcement threat—particularly when it comes to dealing with far-right violence—but has created a toxic breach between our communities and the people they hire to protect and serve them. Too often, as in Portland, the resulting police culture has bred a hostility to their communities that expresses itself in biased enforcement and a stubborn unaccountability.
Much of this originates in police training, which are the foundations of cop culture. And a recent Reuters investigative report has found that police training in America is riddled with extremists: Their survey of police training firms—35 in all—that provide training to American police authorities found five of them employ (and in some cases, are operated by) men whose politics are unmistakably of the far-right extremist variety. And these five people alone are responsible for training hundreds of American cops every year.
The most striking of these five extremist trainers is a former cop from Travis County, Texas, named Richard Whitehead, who moved to Post Falls, Idaho, several years ago and set up shop as a police trainer. He has, over the past four years, given 85 training sessions to at least 560 police officers and other public safety workers in 12 states. He also has advised officers to ignore COVID-19 health restrictions and claimed: “We are on the brink of a civil war.”
Like most of these extremist trainers, Whitehead subscribes to the so-called “constitutional sheriff” model of law enforcement—he in fact ran for Kootenai County sheriff in 2020 as a “constitutional” officer, finishing third out of four candidates in the GOP primary—which claims that county sheriffs are the supreme law of the land, empowered to overrule and ignore state and federal laws, as well as to determine what is and is not “constitutional.” None of its tenets have ever been upheld in a court of law.
Nonetheless, it’s a powerful movement that has been spreading, particularly in rural America, for well over a decade, led by a far-right “constitutionalist” named Richard Mack and his outfit, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). A number of rural sheriffs have won election claiming to be “constitutional,” and inevitably, their regimes have produced dysfunctional far-right fiefdoms and disrupted communities.
Just as important, these “constitutionalists” form much of the backbone of the far-right “Patriot” movement that formed the core of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, and continues to animate and organize the anti-democratic insurgency the right has undertaken in the ensuing year and a half. Despite wrapping themselves in red, white, and blue bunting and claiming fealty to the Constitution, they are part of a profoundly seditionist movement whose entire reason for being is to dismantle American democratic institutions.
Whitehead has quite a track record on social media as a pro-Trump “warrior,” as the Reuters report details, including calling for the public executions of government officials he sees as disloyal to Trump. Moreover, he repeats the same kind of far-right messaging in his training sessions with police officers: At one of them, according to a complaint lodged against him, he called the COVID-19 pandemic “a joke” and health measures unconstitutional. He also showed students an image of a police car with an LGBTQ flag on the side, and then asked the class: “What’s next? We have to have a Muslim flag to satisfy the goat fuckers?”
In his course materials, he at one time included a slide ridiculing transgender people: “Suspect is a gender-fluid assigned-male-at-birth wearing non-gender-specific clothing born Caucasian but identifies as a mountain panda.” Whitehead told Reuters that he just wanted to push back against pressure for police to adopt left-wing views.
His defense was typical for a “constitutionalist”: In a statement responding to the Reuters piece, Whitehead doesn’t deny any of its reportage, but complains:
What does it say about the state of our nation when believing in it’s [sic] Constitution has you deemed an extremist?
Like the other trainers, Whitehead insists that his reactionary politics are not extremist, a refrain that has become common as the identities of police officers who are members of groups associated with the Jan. 6 insurrection like the Oath Keepers are exposed. Interest in these groups among police officers, in fact, increased after the attack on the Capitol. And their well-established sympathy with extremist groups like the Proud Boys before the insurrection played a major role in the dynamic that created the riot.
Reuters reporters Julia Harte and Alexandra Ulmer detail similar extremist beliefs animating Whitehead and four other trainers as well:
The five trainers have aired views including the belief in a vote-rigging conspiracy to unseat Trump in the 2020 election. One trainer attended Trump’s January 6, 2021, rally at the U.S. Capitol that devolved into a riot, injuring more than 100 police officers. Two of the trainers have falsely asserted that prominent Democrats including President Joe Biden are pedophiles, a core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Four have endorsed or posted records of their past interactions with far-right extremist figures, including prominent “constitutional sheriff” leader David Clarke Jr. and Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs, who is being prosecuted for his involvement in the Capitol riots.
The other four trainers featured in the report work in locations around the U.S.:
- Darrell Schenck, who teaches firearms classes to officers, is based in Kansas. He believes Democrats are pedophiles, the 2020 election was illegitimate (“election fraud is the real pandemic”) and has described the Jan. 6 reportage as “fake news.”
- Tim Kennedy, a Texas-based military veteran, travels widely to provide his “Sheepdog Response” training for officers, specializing in martial arts, sharpshooting, and strength-building. On social media, he has promoted the “Boogaloo” civil-war movement, and has posted screen texts of his conversations with Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs, currently awaiting trial for conspiracy related to his role in leading the mob on Jan. 6, and said he would name Bigg his Interior secretary in an imaginary presidency.
- Ryan Morris, whose Pennsylvania-based Tripwire Operations Group provides police training around the region, spouts similar rhetoric, calling the 2020 election a socialist plot to seize the government: “You have just witnessed a coup, the overthrow of the US free election system, the end of our constitutional republic, and the merge of capitalism into the slide toward socialism,” read a Facebook post that Morris shared about a month after the 2020 election. Notably, a number of Tripwire employers were “employed” at the Jan. 6 insurrection, though Morris declined to say who hired them or how they were employed.
- Adam Davis, a contractor for New Jersey-based Street Cop Training, lectures police agencies nationwide and spoke at an industry trade conference hosted by the company—one of the largest private training operations—in October. On social media, he called Joe Biden as a “puppet and a pedophile,” and smeared racial-bias protesters as “pawns” in a “scheme to destroy this nation.”
All of these trainers insisted that their politics were perfectly mainstream, and that moreover they kept their personal views out of their training sessions. Davis described his political views as “middle of the road.” Morris claimed that his social media posts were about attracting clients: “It’s all marketing,” he said. “We put it out there to all different realms, hoping to spark some kind of conversation … and then we generate classes out of that.”
Police training has come under closer examination in no small part because of the deluge of biased-policing incidents of recent years, culminating in the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. In particular, organizations that encourage police to adopt a “warrior mindset” that engenders hostility with their respective communities, in no small part because of their excessive reliance on aggressive tactics and violent street arrests.
Ozzie Knezovich, the sheriff of Spokane County, Washington, has wrestled with such training in the past: His department hosted a “Killology” police training session in recent years that drew broad condemnation, including a rebuke from the Spokane City Council. Nonetheless, the company that offers that training continue to enjoy support from a variety of police departments that hire them, including police in Missoula, Montana.
Knezovich’s department, as Reuters reported, also used Whitehead as a trainer. When Reuters queried him, however, Knezovich told them he was shocked his deputies had been trained by an instructor from “the lunatic fringe.”
He vowed to end the practice: “I’ll be having a conversation with my training unit to take somebody off the list,” the sheriff said.
In a 2019 academic paper titled “KKK in the PD: White Supremacist Police and What to Do About It,” associate Georgetown Law professor Vida Johnson found that police departments across the country exhibited evidence of white supremacist ideology, citing “scandals in over 100 different police departments, in over 40 different states, in which individual police officers have sent overtly racist emails, texts or made racist comments via social media.”
She observed to the Los Angeles Times that it should be a cause for concern when officers become followers of such conspiracy theories as QAnon, or the claim that COVID-19 is a hoax, or theories that Trump’s reelection was fraudulently stolen from him.
“People who can’t separate fact from fiction probably shouldn’t be the ones enforcing laws with guns,” Johnson said.
Johnson has a roadmap for rooting extremists out of police departments: stricter and more diligent hiring practices, social media checks that could reveal extremist beliefs or organizational membership, periodic background checkups for all police veterans, and a review apparatus that is fully independent.
“They’re supposed to be protecting and serving us,” Johnson told Mother Jones. “But unfortunately it seems like a lot of departments see themselves at odds with or even at war with the rest of the community. That’s a culture within policing that needs to change.”
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