For two Virginia police officers who posed for a photo during the deadly U.S. Capitol uprising, the math was swift and public: They have been identified, charged with crimes and arrested.
But for five Seattle officers, the outcome is less clear. Their identities are still under wraps, two are on leave and three continue to work as a police watchdog investigates whether their actions in the nation’s capital on January 6 crossed the line from protected political speech to a violation of the law.
Contrasting cases highlight the dilemma facing law enforcement agencies nationwide as they examine the behavior of dozens of officers who were in Washington on the day of the riot by supporters of President Donald Trump . Officials and experts agree that officers who were involved in the fray should be fired and charged for their role.
But what about the officers who only attended the Trump rally before the riot? How does a department balance an officer’s free speech rights with the blow to public trust that comes from law enforcement attending an event with far-right activists and white nationalists who then attacked the seat of American democracy?
An Associated Press survey of nationwide law enforcement agencies found that at least 31 officers in 12 states are being screened by their supervisors for their behavior in the District of Columbia or facing criminal charges for participating in the riot. Officials are investigating whether the officers violated any laws or policies or participated in violence in Washington. A Capitol Police officer died after being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher as rioters descended on the building and many other officers were injured. A woman was shot dead by police on Capitol Hill and three others died after medical emergencies during the chaos.
Most of the officers have not been publicly identified; only a few have been charged. Some have been identified by online detectives. Others have been denounced by their colleagues or have surrendered themselves.
They come from some of the largest cities in the country – three officers from Los Angeles and a deputy sheriff, for example – as well as state agencies and a Pennsylvania Police Department with nine officers. Among them are an Oklahoma sheriff and a New Hampshire police chief who admitted to attending the rally but denied entering the Capitol or breaking the law.
“If they weren’t on duty, that’s total freedom of speech,” said Will Aitchison, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, who represents law enforcement. “People have the right to express their political views, no matter who stands next to them. You don’t make yourself guilty by association.”
Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum / Getty Images)
But Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a professor at the Faculty of Law at Case Western Reserve University, said the presence of an officer at the rally creates a credibility problem as law enforcement struggles to restore trust community, especially after protests last summer against police brutality sparked by police killings. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Communities will question the integrity of the officers who attended the rally as well as “individuals who proudly profess racist and confrontational views,” she said. “This calls into question whether these officers are interested in engaging with the police in a way that builds trust and legitimacy in all communities, including communities of color.”
In Rocky Mount, a Virginia town of about 1,000, Sgt. Thomas Robertson and Officer Jacob Fracker have been suspended without pay and face criminal charges after posting a photo of themselves inside the Capitol during the riot. According to court records, Robertson wrote on social media that “the left is just mad because we actually attacked the government which is the problem … The right IN ONE DAY took the f (asterisk) (asterisk) (asterisk) ) (asterisk) US Capitol. Keep poking us. “
Attempts to contact the couple were unsuccessful and court records do not list the lawyers. Rocky Mount executives declined to be interviewed. In a statement, they said the events at Capitol Hill were tragic.
RELATED: Over 60 Arrested, Several Officers Injured, 4 Deaths Reported Amid Pro-Trump Protests In DC
“We stand behind and add our support to those who spoke out against the violence and illegal activity that took place that day,” said Chief Constable Ken Criner, Captain Mark Lovern and City Manager James Ervin. “Our city and our police department absolutely do not tolerate any illegal or unethical behavior by anyone, including our officers and staff.”
Across the country, five Seattle officers are under investigation by the city’s police accountability office. Two officers posted photos of themselves on social media while in the district and authorities are investigating their whereabouts and what they were doing. Three others told supervisors they traveled to Washington for the events and were under investigation for what they did there.
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said his department supported officers’ freedom of speech and that those in the nation’s capital would be fired if they “were directly involved in the insurgency on Capitol Hill. United States”.
But police chiefs need to assess more than just clear criminal behavior, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy group. They must also consider how their actions affect the credibility of a ministry, he said.
The rights of First Amendment officers “do not extend to expressing words that may be violent or perhaps express prejudice,” Wexler said, “because that will reflect what they are doing when they are doing it. work, when they testify in court. “
Over the summer and fall, Seattle police – as well as officers for that matter – have come under fire for handling mass protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd. The city has received more than 19,000 complaints against officers, most of them for excessive use of force and inappropriate use of pepper spray.
Andrew Myerberg, director of the Seattle Office of Police Accountability, said none of the officers currently under investigation were involved in these cases.
But Sakara Remmu, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle / King County, said the officers should be fired regardless. Their public statements of solidarity with Trump arouse not only mistrust in the community, but also terror throughout the department, she said.
“It absolutely matters when the decorum of racial peace and racial hatred cracks, because we already have a documented history and a legacy of what that means in this country,” Remmu said.
In Houston, the police chief denounced an officer who resigned and was subsequently charged in the riot. A lawyer for Officer Tam Pham said the force’s 18-year veteran “very much regrets” being present at the rally and was “deeply remorseful”.
But many chiefs said their officers had committed no crime.
“Arkansas State Police respect the rights and freedom of an employee to use their time off as they see fit,” department spokesman Bill Sadler said of two officers who have attended the Trump rally.
Malik Aziz, the former president and executive director of the National Black Police Association, compared the sentencing of all the officers who were in Washington to the tarring of all the protesters who took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd with the violent and destructive acts of some.
Dallas Police Department Major Aziz said police acting in private have the same rights as other Americans, but knowingly going to a fanatic event should be disqualifying for an officer.
âThere is no place in law enforcement for this individual,â Aziz said.