NOEL KING, HOST:
A team at NPR has been examining documents that illuminate connections between a far-right group and law enforcement. The group is called the Oath Keepers. Its closeness to law enforcement is no secret. Many members claim to be current and former U.S. troops or cops. And they vow to enforce their own interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. We're going to start with NPR's Odette Yousef. She covers domestic extremism. And she explained to me how NPR got the documents.
KING: In September, there was an anonymous hacker who obtained information from the Oath Keepers web servers. Noel, this included information such as chat logs within the group emails and a spreadsheet with tens of thousands of rows in it of current and past members to the Oath Keepers. We looked through that spreadsheet to try to find if there were law enforcement officials in the nation's three largest cities, New York, Chicago and LA.
In Chicago, I found 13 names on the Oath Keepers list that matched officers that are currently serving on the force. And of the three cities that we looked at, this was the largest number that we found in a single agency. Now, those 13 officers spanned across race and ethnicity. There were some that were white, some that were Hispanic, some that were Asian and Pacific. Interestingly, five of them worked in training and support which includes firearms training, Noel. I reached out to all of them. Two of them spoke to me on the condition that they not be named, but they did acknowledge that they had in the past been members of the Oath Keepers. There were a couple of other officers who claimed that they had never signed up. And a couple of them actually had indications of their involvement with the Oath Keepers on their social media pages.
You know, I was kind of surprised to see that there were so many in the Chicago Police Department versus what we found in New York and Los Angeles. But I also wasn't really that surprised, given some of the particular dynamics that we have going on in Chicago with the city's largest police union. In the aftermath of the January 6 riot at the Capitol, the head of that union voiced support for the people that participated in the riot.
KING: Thanks, Odette. Let's bring in two other reporters who've been looking through these documents. Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent with NPR's Investigations Unit. And George Joseph is a reporter at member station WNYC. Hey, guys.
GEORGE JOSEPH, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
KING: George, tell me about what you found in New York.
JOSEPH: So we started digging into these records as soon as they came online. And what we found were there were Oath Keepers in a wide variety of public agencies. We're talking about state military agencies, courthouses, correctional facilities and police departments. We even identified a specific state guard official who reports directly to the governor's office and had signed up for the group. Within the NYPD specifically, which is a far larger organization than the Chicago Police Department, we found two officers who had enlisted with the group. One, interestingly, is a firearms and tactics specialist. The other was in a specialized unit that polices protests here and has been accused of brutality against Black Lives Matter protesters. We contacted both of those officers, and neither would discuss their apparent ties to the group. But those findings did alarm many elected officials here. And when we broke the story back in September, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an immediate investigation.
KING: That was back in September. What's the status of that investigation now?
JOSEPH: The department says that investigation is still ongoing, but they've noted to us that they haven't found that these two officers have current active participation or ties to the group. But what's important to note here is that this is an internal NYPD review. So this isn't necessarily an independent investigation by an external agency.
KING: OK. Tom, out in Los Angeles, what did you find?
DREISBACH: We found three people within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who appear to have connections with the Oath Keepers. One of the three had posted on Twitter links to the group's website. The other two had stated, according to the Oath Keepers data, that they work in training. One is a firearms trainer. The other had worked within the custody training unit, according to this data. Now, none of them had responded to our requests for comment. The sheriff's department, for their part, told me that they had assigned a supervisor and launched an administrative inquiry in response to our reporting, but they could not comment further. I also spoke to the county inspector general, as well as the chair of the Civilian Oversight Commission for the sheriff's department. They told me that they were very concerned by what we found but not surprised. The department has dealt for years with allegations that deputies have formed subgroups, also commonly known as gangs, that have engaged in racism and violence. And I spoke to Priscilla Ocen, who is the head of the county civilian oversight commission. Here's what she told me.
PRISCILLA OCEN: So we have a problem with white supremacy in the LA County Sheriff's Department. We have a problem of white supremacist gangs. And the sheriff who was tasked with managing this department has looked the other way.
DREISBACH: The sheriff's department has dismissed those concerns as overblown. But experts say in general, this is a nationwide problem with sheriff's departments, where, sometimes, these departments can see themselves as above the law.
KING: OK. So police officers in New York can't knowingly associate with groups involved in criminal activities. The Oath Keepers were participants in at least one criminal activity that we all know about, the January 6 insurrection. And, Tom, I know that the investigations unit has been reporting on what members of that group were doing on the date. What were they up to?
DREISBACH: Federal prosecutors have alleged that more than 20 members of the Oath Keepers or people with ties to the group conspired - meaning planned over a period of weeks and months - to take part in the attack on the Capitol. They particularly cite military-style planning, bringing of weapons and armor to the Washington, D.C., area ahead of the attack on the Capitol and military-style tactics to breach the Capitol during the day.
KING: Let's bring Odette back in. So, Odette, your job is to look broadly at domestic extremism in this country. As you're hearing what Tom and George found, combined with what you found, what are you thinking?
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: You know, I think what we're seeing is that the reach of these extremist organizations into our law enforcement agencies is a problem that agencies will need to confront. And it speaks to the patchwork system of law enforcement that George alluded to earlier. There are nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and no standard for what to do with officers that affiliate with extremist groups. I spoke with Sue Rahr - she's the former sheriff of King County, Wash., and former executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission - about how tricky it is to confront this issue. Let's listen to what she said.
SUE RAHR: How do you balance an officer's freedom of speech, freedom of association with the need to maintain public trust and to ensure that they're delivering constitutional policing? It's a difficult balance.
YOUSEF: But it's a really important issue to confront, said Rahr, because, for example, Noel, one officer that I was able to speak to in Chicago who was an oath keeper he told me that he believes that Black Lives Matter should be designated a terrorist group. Now, when that's the mindset of some of your city's peace officers, you know, Rahr says that should cause some concern about whether they are equally applying the law to all residents of the city. And ultimately, that kind of bias could undermine public trust in law enforcement.
KING: OK. Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism for NPR. We also heard from Tom Dreisbach with NPR's Investigations Unit and George Joseph, who's a reporter with member station WNYC. Thank you all so much for your time today.
YOUSEF: Thank you.
DREISBACH: Thank you, Noel.
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