The sights and sounds of January 6, 2021, are etched into our minds for the remainder of our lives and will no doubt be studied and read about for decades to come. This was no ordinary Wednesday. It could be classified as one of the worst, if not the worst day yet, in American history.
As we contemplate what went wrong and reflect on the differential response and treatment, we should keep our minds open to the possibility that there isn’t one sole explanation or just one take away from the day’s events and how police responded. It is certainly fair to say that had the gathering been a Black Lives Matter protest, the police response may have been significantly different. I believe it would have been. But there may be many more points of failure, blame and cause for concern, including distractions, cultural influences, or even a profound failure of leadership within the federal agencies and offices involved.
Our search for an explanation shouldn’t stop at bias or scapegoating. Encounters between police and far-right groups over the last several months and in recent years have raised eyebrows and caused some to consider whether there is much more beneath the surface. Some of these groups have long identified with the Blue Lives Matter flag and slogans that suggest they support the police. The footage of January 6th is rife with these flags and emblems. Could it be that a part of the explanation for the lack of police preparedness involves an overidentification or level of comfort with these groups? Have some in policing normalized an acceptance of these groups because they carry a supportive slogan or flag and concluded they’re not capable of violence—including that aimed at police officers?
Some may be familiar with recent news stories about chiefs and officers expressing openness to these groups, giving them water, or treating them differently during protests and in response to civil disorder. This appeared to exist, at some level, during the Capitol siege as videos of the event show officers opening gates for the crowd, taking selfies with the insurrectionists and treating them with a level of courtesy and respect usually associated with law-abiding citizens—not members of an insurrectionist mob. It’s quite clear that there was a greater level of comfort with these groups and individuals than there are with groups expressing opposition and antagonism towards police.
Setting aside January 6th for a moment, one thing is clear. Policing’s apparent normalizing of the acceptance of far-right groups carrying Blue Lives Matter slogans and symbols is wrong and not only presents a threat to officer and community safety but to the legitimacy of democratic policing. The police must resist the urge to take sides with groups claiming or projecting a supportive image. This video (https://twitter.com/i/status/1347261802090958849) demonstrates how thin that support may be and if there ever was true, authentic support to begin with. It clearly makes real the old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” If the police accept these groups as normal, supportive citizens, then they should not be surprised when they turn on frontline police officers when they aren’t allowed to break the law.
Policing must earn its trust, confidence, and support from everyone equally. To the extent we do that, we will all be safer, and our democracy will be stronger. Policing’s leaders must take a long, hard look at their organizational cultures and the extent to which the members of their organization have normalized and accepted these groups simply because they appear to support the police. The future legitimacy of American policing demands nothing less.
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.