According to leaked data apparently from a far-right group, its efforts to recruit law enforcement officials have had some success in America’s major cities. There are active officers in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago on the Oath Keepers membership registry, with Chicago having the most representation of the three.
Experts on extremism and police believe the results are cause for worry, since the far-right paramilitary group urges members to solely obey the law as they perceive it. However, setting a clear criterion for officers’ involvement with organizations such as the Oath Keepers is difficult since it may violate officers’ free speech and free assembly rights.
For almost as long as the Oath Keepers have been, they have been on the radar of extremist academics and federal law enforcement. However, the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6th substantially increased attention of the organization.
Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 to recruit law enforcement and military members. The paramilitary group promises to protect the Constitution and repeats the pledge of duty to “support and defend the Constitution against all adversaries, foreign and domestic.”
In reality, members of the loosely structured network have been present during armed standoffs with federal police in circumstances when its members think the government has overreached. Oath Keepers have lately appeared at racial justice marches in opposition to Black Lives Matter and far-left antifa demonstrators. The organization, which is part of the right’s so-called patriot movement, started as an anti-government movement but refashioned itself as a pro-Trump extreme group, primarily targeting leftist groups and the alleged deep state.
At least 21 persons with apparent links to the organization are among those accused in the Jan. 6 assault. Prosecutors claim that Oath Keepers members planned for weeks and months to bring weapons and armor to the Washington, D.C., region ahead of the incident and employed military-style methods to enter the facility.
Prosecutors have not named the group’s leader, Rhodes, in any of the charges, but he is labeled as “Person One” in court documents, including indictments and statements of offense, implying that investigators are curious about what he was doing on the day of the incident. That day, Rhodes was supposedly in Washington, D.C., where he met with Oath Keepers who had invaded the Capitol outside the building. Rhodes has not been accused of breaking into the Capitol, and he has said publicly that he was ignorant of any Oath Keepers plot to assault the Capitol.
“Some of our guys got caught up and went inside the Capitol, which I think was a massive mistake, but I don’t think there was any conspiracy on their part to do that,” Rhodes said in June to The Wichita Falls Times Record News.
An unidentified hacker leaked documents allegedly acquired from the Oath Keepers’ web servers in September. Some of the group’s chat logs, emails, and a list of roughly 40,000 items concerning membership information, presumably including people now and previously on its membership rolls, were included in the breach.
Reporters were able to identify active officers who appeared to be on both the membership roster and lists of officers in the Chicago Police Department, New York Police Police Department, and Los Angeles-area departments by comparing the roster to lists of officers in the Chicago Police Department, New York Police Department, and Los Angeles-area departments. The list of officers in California is compiled from the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) database as well as public payroll data. Through open records requests, the California Reporting Project received the POST database up to April 13, 2021.
“I didn’t even know this thing still existed,” one Chicago Police Department staffer stated of the Oath Keepers. He agreed to talk on the condition that his identity not be revealed.
The uniformed employee, who claimed he couldn’t remember when or why he joined the organization, said he had let his Oath Keepers membership expire many years ago. In the disclosed information, his given address was that of a municipal police station, where he verified working in 2009.
On the Oath Keepers list, he was one of 13 active Chicago Police Department officers recognized as possible matches. Officers in Chicago vary in age from 42 to 54 years old and are white, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific Islander. Five of them are employed in “training and support,” which includes guns instruction.
Another CPD member, who agreed to comment only on the condition of anonymity, admitted to joining the Oath Keepers more than a decade ago but claimed he let his membership expire after four or five years.
“It’s not a terrorist group,” he stated, adding that he had learned of the Oath Keepers from other officers on the force. He was among a few of officers who joined at the time because they believed Chicago’s handgun prohibition, which was eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court, was unlawful. “Officers can’t take away someone’s gun rights because they live in Chicago,” he said.
Despite assuring that he doesn’t use social media, the CPD officer gave personal information that matched a Facebook profile, including his name, military service, and addresses in both Chicago and another state. That website had multiple photographs submitted in March 2015 that included graphics implying Oath Keepers involvement.
The day after the uniformed CPD employee spoke, the Facebook profile was changed to modify the name, delete biographical information, and remove photographs with Oath Keepers insignia.
When questioned about the suspected involvement of Oath Keepers in the Capitol violence on January 6, both CPD members indicated they don’t follow the news. However, in the immediate aftermath of those events, the leader of Chicago’s biggest police union supported the acts of those who stormed the Capitol, until a backlash forced him to retract those remarks.
Two additional people identified as Oath Keepers database matches by the Chicago Police Department denied ever joining the anti-government organization, with one claiming that a third party had registered him up for the group as “a sort of setup to get police officers.” Others did not return phone calls or emails.
It is clear that police units throughout the country have refused or cannot weed out extremism in the police ranks.