Wolves Among Sheepdogs: Exploring the Nexus of U.S. First Responders, the Far Right, and the Risk of Radicalization to Violent Extremism

– Executive Summary

The violent insurrection that occurred on January 6, 2021, at the United States Capitol revealed a disturbing trend of domestic right-wing violent extremism. Among those committing violent acts on January 6 were current and former members of the military, law enforcement, and other first responders.[1] Personnel from these demographics participating in extremism and violent attacks undermines national trust in such individuals and could affect the fair application of laws, policies, and procedures. Government, public servants, and the public seem uncertain about how to manage tensions between the respect for privacy and protections of thought, speech, and assembly, the higher standards of conduct expected of sworn personnel, and the crucial nature of public trust.

This thesis reviews literature at the nexus of radicalization, far-right ideology, and U.S. military personnel to better understand the propensity and process of radicalization and then explores what this research suggests about potential trends among first responders, a group on which there is less research. It investigates the evidence of growing radicalization and threat of violent extremism among first responders, the extent to which extreme ideological beliefs have permeated law enforcement and fire disciplines, and the potential impact on our nation and the Homeland Security Enterprise (HSE). To that end, the primary research questions are: What indicators, risk factors, behaviors, and motivations exist that could suggest a propensity to violent extremism among U.S. first responders, and what is the ideological and political climate among U.S. first responders?

To answer the research questions, I conducted a review of existing literature, definitions, frameworks, and processes of radicalization, terrorism, and violent extremism. I explored variations and trends of extremism, demographic and cultural risk factors, and constitutional protections in the U.S. military and first-responder ranks. Then, I developed a conceptual framework to guide the development of a survey. Finally, this thesis analyzed results from a survey that was sent to first-responder agencies in the United States and designed to investigate factors likely to be related to the propensity to radicalize using psychometrically validated instruments measuring pro-social rule-breaking, political identity, professional identity, and extremist sympathies.[2]

Military and first-responder populations tend to have strong moral values and work values such as intellectual and personal stimulation forming their core professional self-concept.[3] Research indicates that deliberate rule-breaking can be related to an individual’s interest in their organization, and fellow members, and contingent upon their perception of right and wrong. One of the purposes of this thesis was to explore the multiple facets of pro-social rule-breaking (PSRB) to better understand what might lead a public servant to break rules based upon their ethics, attitudes, and behaviors, and how the latter might correlate to potential radicalization, extremism and violence. To better understand the propensity to radicalization and extremism, this survey explored the political and ideological climate among U.S. law enforcement and firefighters. The research findings support the urgent need to explore radicalization to extremism in law enforcement and firefighters.

This thesis found that law enforcement and fire personnel may be at greater risk than other citizens for far-right radicalization, white supremacy, and anti-government/militia extremism. The cultural and political environment common to those populations and because of the added stressors and risk factors associated with the jobs may contribute to higher risk. The anti-government sentiment that led in part to the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021 has been exacerbated by voter and election fraud claims, tax protests, border security and COVID-19 anxiety, fear of economic recession, and conspiracy theories promulgated by such social media groups as QAnon.[4] Far-right militia groups are believed to be recruiting from the military (active and veterans), law enforcement, and firefighters ranks. Individuals from the military (active and veterans), law enforcement, and firefighters were among the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, and that white supremacists and other domestic extremists maintain an active presence in U.S. police departments and other law enforcement agencies.[5]

This thesis found people who are more vulnerable psychologically, younger, and less established and secure in their identities are at higher risk of extremism. Far-right extremist groups thrive on command and control, hierarchical world views, and militaristic cultures, and thus can be a draw for military members and first-responders. The demographics correlating with increased vulnerability are prevalent in the surveyed career fields (military, law enforcement, and fire service), which professionals tend to enter early in life. The survey results suggest that political identity strength increases with several co-related variables. Participants who were older, white, male, more experienced, mid-level to executive, with higher education, and from rural and suburban areas reported a stronger political identity and professional identity than younger, less experienced, and less educated frontline employees.

Notably, however, extremist sympathies and PSRB attitudes and behaviors exist independently of professionalism, indicating that identifying and minimizing the impact of extremist beliefs and actions is beyond simply increasing the dedication and devotion to a first responder profession. The relationships between professional identity, role identity, and professional clarityfactors centered on a commitment to the highest ideals of one’s profession—do not mitigate elements pointing to potential extremist behaviors. First responders’ extremist sympathies align with their political identity. A first responder’s professional role identity as a firefighter or law enforcement is an important part of who they are and provides a sense of purpose but does not fully define their attitude towards rule-breaking.

For all of the above reasons, traditional frameworks and modalities for studying radicalization and extremism threat may not be relevant for understanding radicalization in these professional populations; based on response to the survey fielded for this thesis, it also appears that direct lines of inquiry may not be helpful in assessing or quantifying the phenomenon. Individuals in committed relationships, older, and with higher education are less likely to have extremist sympathies. First responders from the West tend to have a stronger attitude towards PSRB and there is a higher propensity towards PSRB attitudes among firefighters than law enforcement. There is a clear distinction between white and non-white respondents indicating a stronger propensity toward PSRB behavior among white respondents.

We do not know fully if—and if so, why—the military, law enforcement, and firefighters are more susceptible to radicalization than other demographics. Given the tension between public servants’ rights and the public’s need to trust the loyalty of public servants, a radicalization and extremist problem within the United States first-responder community could be highly consequential, not least concerning public trust in our ability to discharge our duties fairly and faithfully as servants and protectors of our communities.

[1] Jaweed Kaleen and Kurtis Lee, “Capitol Riot Included Military Veterans and Law Enforcement,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-15/capitol-riot-police-veterans-extremists.

[2] Bushra Hassan et al., “Development and Validation of Extremism and Violence Risk Identification Scale,” Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research 36, no. 1 (2021): 51–70, https://doi.org/10.33824/PJPR.2021.36.1.04.

[3] May Solveig Fagermoen, “Professional Identity: Values Embedded in Meaningful Nursing Practice,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 25, no. 3 (March 1997): 434–41, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2648.1997.1997025434.x.

[4] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Antigovernment Movement,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed August 22, 2022, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/antigovernment.

[5] Michael German, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement,” Brennan Center for Justice, August 27, 2020, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/hidden-plain-sight-racism-white-supremacy-and-far-right-militancy-law.

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