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After The Capitol Attack, Does Police MAGA Sentiment Cross The Line?

In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Julio Cortez
In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Law enforcement agencies around the country are dealing with the fallout of off-duty officers who took part in the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally that turned into a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol.

So far, more than 30 off-duty officers have been placed at the rally. In some cities, that fact has shaken confidence in the police.

"I can't think of anything that's more problematic for trust," says Douglas Wagoner, a member of the Seattle Community Police Commission, "to find out that there are potential officers. ... potentially involved in this attempted coup."

Wagoner made the comments during the citizen advisory group's Jan. 20 meeting, as members discussed the news that at least four Seattle police officers had gone to the Washington, D.C., rally. The number of officers under scrutiny later rose to five.

"What more can we do to understand how deep the iceberg really is, here?" Wagoner asked.

Similar questions are being asked in Houston, where an officer is facing federal charges for entering the Capitol during the siege. He resigned, and Houston police chief Art Acevedo pledged to hunt for political extremists inside his department.

Some officers who have supported former President Donald Trump over the years are now worried about a political backlash.

"We received several calls from our members," says Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. He says they asked if they'll face discipline for "liking" one of Trump's tweets.

Griffith says he assured officers they wouldn't be penalized for something like that. He adds that he hasn't seen signs of extremism among the rank and file.

"Yeah, they have political views," he says of Houston officers. "That doesn't mean they're going to, you know, overthrow the government."

Police officers enjoy the same free speech rights as other Americans. But, like other Americans, they also run the risk of discipline or termination by their employers if they take a political stance that's considered beyond the pale.

"Whether or not the [police] department can punish you for that expressive conduct or speech depends on a balancing test," says Christy Lopez of Georgetown Law School's Innovative Policing Program.

"And that balance is between the importance of your ability to speak and the damage done to the agency," such as harm to a police department's reputation or legitimacy, Lopez says.

Ideally, departments set down clear rules for what their officers may say off duty. This often takes the form of social media policies, barring online activity that could be seen as racist, sexist or abusive in some other form.

But Lopez says no policy can foresee every scenario, and the acceptability of a political statement may change along with the context.

"What does that tell us if, for example, an officer wants to wear a MAGA hat to a baseball game? Is that balancing test different on Jan. 5 than it is on Jan. 7?" she asks. "Maybe that's different after we've come to believe that Trump instigated an attack on the Capitol [on Jan. 6]."

Lopez isn't saying MAGA hats are necessarily off-limits now, but she thinks police should be alert to how new contexts may darken the perceived meaning of political statements that recently seemed mainstream.

Some officers are already getting that message, and are "scrubbing" their social media. Police-reform activists, meanwhile, have been screenshotting and saving posts they believe to be inappropriate.

So far, though, there's little sign departments are about to declare MAGA off limits.

"I think people are entitled to their political views," says Andrew Myerberg, director of the Seattle Office of Police Accountability, which is investigating the five officers who attended the Jan. 6 rally. He wants to stay focused on whether they broke the law while they were in Washington D.C., not on the beliefs that took them there.

"I don't think it is my job to be policing those political views, unless there is some component of it that clearly violates Seattle Police Department policy," he says.

At the same time, Myerberg says it's "no secret" that law enforcement officers tend to be conservative.

"It certainly creates friction, when law enforcement is policing a city that's as progressive as Seattle or Washington, D.C., or Portland," he says.

To Tracey Meares, a Yale Law professor who studies the relationship between the public and police, this indicates a deeper problem. Rather than worrying so much about what police are allowed to say, she says, we should look for the reasons behind this political mismatch between police and the community.

"There is an argument that could be made, that because of the way the job has been defined, we have a high proportion of cops who do have a certain world view," Meares says. "And then there could be other people who are not attracted to the job — who would be very good at this job — who don't have this world view."

In the short term, though, police are living with a new reality: the president many of them supported is out of office, and has been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for "Incitement of Insurrection."

Houston police union president Doug Griffith says he's not worried about the political repercussions.

"There's going to be those that say, 'Oh, we've got to cleanse the nation of all these Trump supporters!' Well, that ain't gonna happen," he says. "I'm still pro-Trump, and I will continue to be pro-Trump."

At the same time, he wants fellow officers to respect the office of the president and the process that elected Joe Biden.

"He is our president; we will deal with it," he says.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.