It is illegal in all 50 states to form unauthorized private militia groups. However, 36 states allow the open carry of firearms at protests. As a result, groups carrying arms and wearing tactical gear at protests can generate the public impression that they are sanctioned by the government and even perhaps aligned with police agencies. That impression presents unique challenges to public and officer safety, all the more so as it becomes normalized
The modern U.S. militia movement dates to the 1990s. For most of their history, these groups have been anti-government, labeling as tyranny, many legislative or judiciary actions. Despite these early leanings, most of the current “mainstream” paramilitary movements have cast themselves as sympathetic to former President Donald Trump and against what they claim to be “deep state” conspiracies. While the large majority of such groups are on the far right of the political spectrum, 2020 also saw activity from the extreme left, for example, in the Pacific Northwest.
During 2020, unauthorized armed groups protested health lockdowns, opposed racial justice protestors, conspired to abduct a state governor, and kill law enforcement officers, and, in an event indelibly imprinted on the country’s collective psyche as well as on policing and history, participated in the siege of the U.S. Capitol during which five people died. Complicating the problem is the fact that that allegiances can and do change as groups splinter or attach to new grievances or leaders.
Further, in open carry states, armed groups are now an increasingly common presence at political protests. This is additionally complicated by local laws stating that armed groups are not subject to prosecution for their mere presence, and by the fact that state laws may have high bars for prosecution. Interacting with such groups presents new and important challenges for police services agencies.
Implications for Policing
- Officer safety: While most of the larger so-called militias claim to be pro-law enforcement, this is changing. Some have targeted and killed law enforcement officers. Law enforcement officers cannot safely assume that any given militia member respects the lives of officers (as seen here).
- Perceptions of police legitimacy: There have been reported incidents in 2020 (e.g. in Albuquerque, Kenosha, Louisville, and the U.S. Capitol) when officers’ interactions with militias gave the appearance to the public that that these groups were receiving preferential treatment over other groups of protestors. Such incidents can threaten local police legitimacy, can erode the public’s trust and confidence in U.S. policing nationally, and may lead to reputational damage for police and police leadership.
- International experience with armed militias: Experience gained from armed conflicts around the world suggests that, if left unchecked, even those militias formed with the best of intentions (e.g., patriots or freedom fighters) can and do routinely morph into little more than elaborate criminal gangs severely damaging the communities, policing itself, and the country where it is allowed to occur. This can happen gradually or quickly. Unless they turn their collective attention to these groups’ heavily armed presence on public streets, police services agencies risk contributing to increasing radicalization that can lead to flashpoints, and result in widespread and more lethal violence.
- Normalization: Militia activity has become increasingly common, public, and mainstream. The acceptance of these groups in society presents long term risks to public safety. While many militias assert that they have a mandate for public safety, these groups have no legal role in ensuring public safety. With many of these groups appearing to “support the blue,” some officers may engage with them in a way that gives an appearance of mutual support. This can contribute to the normalization of such groups and at the same time risk alienating large segments of the public that those officers are paid to protect (thus damaging their ability to increase the public’s trust and confidence in the police as an institution).
These measures are intended to maintain public trust in police and police legitimacy. To prevent the normalizing of illegal so-called militia armed groups in society, policing leaders should:
- Audit the organization’s culture and its criteria for hiring and screening, and review and consistently audit the workforce’s use of social media and other information sources for indications of affiliation with militia groups.
- Watch for markings on uniforms where officers may add their own insignias that give the appearance of partiality toward one group or another.
- Ensure that the treatment of all protest groups by the police is equal— I.e., how officers speak to protestors, provide them with water or receive water from them, provide support or guidance to protestors.
- Familiarize the workforce with the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 as well as other incidents, highlighting the danger of normalizing these groups who are not supporters of the police even though they may frequently appear to be (as seen here).
- Watch for armed groups moving throughout neighborhoods. Notice shifts from peaceful protest to inciting violence. Notice groups marking territory on public property such as street signs.
- Inform armed group members and especially leaders that their “help” is unnecessary and may be unlawful and that the police will enforce the law.
The inspiration for this article came from an innovative nonprofit, Police2Peace, which is operationalizing a new community policing framework rooted in PEACE OFFICER, together with input from Cure Violence Global, an international NGO that uses a health approach to preventing and reducing violence and the TRUST Network, an early warning-early response system formed to reduce violence around the 2020 elections and beyond.
- Protest and Public Safety: A Guide for Cities and Citizens, Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown Law
- Standing By: Right-Wing Militia Groups and the US Election, Armed Conflict Location and Event Database and MilitiaWatch
- Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement, The Brennan Center for Justice
- Hate Symbols Database , Anti-Defamation League
- National Police Foundation
Chief (Ret.) Jim Bueermann has been involved in policing since 1978. He is a 33 year veteran of the Redlands (CA) Police Department, is a past Executive Fellow of the US DOJ National Institute of Justice, was the President of the National Police Foundation from 2012 to 2018, and now serves as a policing consultant and is the founder of the recently created Future Policing Institute, a think tank focused on advancing the future of policing.