Officers who pledge loyalty to oath keepers should be fired, Mayor says

The New York Times
New York, United StatesWritten By: Ali Watkins ©️ 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Oct 02, 2021, 03:32 PM IST


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De Blasio’s statements came after WNYC and Gothamist reported this week that at least two active-duty New York City police officers had associated with the Oath Keepers

Any New York City police officer who is found to have pledged allegiance to the Oath Keepers or other violent “far-right nationalist” groups should be investigated by the Police Department, charged internally and removed from the force, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday.

“If we confirm that any police officer has pledged allegiance to Oath Keepers and to those values — there’ll be due process of course, they deserve a trial — but if that’s found to be the case, they shouldn’t be a member of the NYPD,” de Blasio said during an appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC.

De Blasio’s statements came after WNYC and Gothamist reported this week that at least two active-duty New York City police officers had associated with the Oath Keepers, a militia group whose members participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“The NYPD has a very aggressive effort looking for threats because those are the biggest threats right now, the right-wing militias,” de Blasio said, defining such groups as fomenting hate against immigrants and people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds.

The possible links between the officers, who were not named in the report, and the Oath Keepers came to light in a hacked database that listed names, contact information and personal information of people affiliated with the group as recently as 2017.

The New York Times could not independently confirm whether any of the people listed in the database were active-duty police officers. It was also impossible to determine from a review of the database whether any of the people named in it were currently engaged with the Oath Keepers, or whether they had participated in the Jan. 6 attack.

A Police Department spokesman confirmed that the WNYC-Gothamist report was the subject of an internal investigation, but he declined to answer further questions, including whether any department employees had previously been disciplined for affiliation with a militia group.

The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 and primarily draw their members from active and retired law enforcement and military personnel. More than 20 group members are facing criminal charges in connection with the Capitol riot.

De Blasio’s comments, and his insistence that Police Department members who are active in the Oath Keepers or similar groups be investigated and fired, adds a new twist to an already difficult problem for police forces across the United States, which have struggled to identify and formally discipline members they believe harbor extremist views.

There are no hard figures for how many police officers maintain explicit ties to extremist groups. But many experts have long warned that far-right ideology and domestic extremism have festered within the ranks of law enforcement and military agencies.

In New York, the Police Department’s patrol guide forbids employees from associating with groups that promote “hatred, oppression, or prejudice based on race, religion, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, or disability.” The department’s rules also prohibit employees from associating with groups or people who are believed to be involved in criminal activity. Under the department’s discipline guidelines, such conduct can lead to termination.

But it has been difficult for the department to identify what kind of conduct qualifies as a patrol-guide violation, and what is allowed as constitutionally protected speech. Some officers have been disciplined or investigated for behavior that suggests a connection to extremist ideology. For others, the indiscretions have fallen into murky territory.

Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said many police departments do not clearly delineate what type of organizations officers cannot join. Neither do they explain whether certain kinds of activities may be acceptable, while others might be fireable offenses.

“If I get their newsletter does it mean that I’m a member, or that I’m just curious and so forth?” he asked.

In New York City specifically, uncertainty about the rules regarding police officers’ engagement with right-wing groups has often played out in plain sight.

Officers have reportedly displayed extremist symbols while patrolling protests. One current officer is under investigation for socializing with right-wing leaders at the U.S. Capitol not long before the Jan. 6 riot. Edward Mullins, who leads the city’s powerful sergeants union, once gave an interview to Fox News, flanked by paraphernalia from QAnon, a fringe conspiracy theory.

De Blasio noted the challenge of regulating such activity, and cautioned against creating a “witch hunt” atmosphere within city agencies.

“I think a part of who we are as Americans is to be really, really careful how we cast aspersions and how we use the power of government to investigate,” de Blasio said Thursday. “I think the way to do it is to follow specific leads and follow them very, very aggressively.”

But, he added, members of the Police Department who have taken the step of pledging allegiance to a group linked to insurrectionist behavior should be investigated and tried by the department.

“When you look at the manifesto of the Oath Keepers, they are basically telling their members to defy orders from democratically elected civilian governments,” he said. “Anyone who is claiming allegiance to the Oath Keepers is inherently denying their own oath as a police officer and they can’t serve as a police officer under that status, they just can’t.”