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Thursday, October 6, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: Perception, Reality, Violence Fuel Law Enforcement’s Challenge with Extremism

If we look at our history at any given time, there has always been extremism. This is nothing new and is something that law enforcement has been dealing with for an exceedingly long time. It has been important for law enforcement as part of the mission to keep a finger on the pulse of extremism while at the same time ensuring extremists’ rights, afforded under the Constitution, are protected to voice their views in any legal way and within the law as they choose to do. It is important to keep that finger on the pulse of those groups to head off and prevent acts of violence contemplated by those extremists and quickly bring them to justice if the efforts of deterrence fail.

Thus, the development of active and effective criminal intelligence units. The good thing is that extremist numbers have historically been small and law enforcement have been able to keep that finger on the pulse using various tools. Each police department’s effort in the collection and use of criminal intelligence varies depending on size and budget. They also go about assessing the collected intelligence in different ways depending on the populace they serve. The Joint Terrorism Task Forces that were formed regionally post 9/11 have dramatically increased the capability of intelligence and the ability to share intelligence garnered from open sources, as well as both overt and covert investigations. The ability to share has increased the ease of trying to keep checking the pulse of the various extremist groups.

Following Newton’s third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), for every extremist group, there is a group on the other side of their issue willing to push back. It therefore falls on law enforcement to stand in the middle and referee when two groups on polar opposite sides come together to ensure the public peace and protect the lives and safety of both sides as well as the general public. The job requires those police agencies to enforce the rule of law in a fair and impartial manner using the tools at their disposal. Law and order must be maintained so that total chaos and a societal failure does not occur. Historically the numbers of extremist groups and members of those groups have been relatively small, and the job was manageable.

Extremism is born out of perception. Groups of people that believe in certain ideals, philosophies, to include political or ideological beliefs have the perception that they have somehow been wronged. To them their perception becomes their reality. Their reality if threatened enough can easily and quickly lead to violence. There has always been a racial divide, as well as a religious divide. In addition, there are cultural divides that result in extremist street gangs as well as other factors concerning activities around illegal drug enterprises and gangs that make their living in illegal distribution of controlled substances. We have all seen those types of extremist groups, some of which have been portrayed in flattering ways on both the big screen and the little screen. As evidenced by events over the past several years there is a growing political divide that has gone past the boiling point and the lid to the kettle is blowing off.

It is the job for those who have been elected, appointed, or employed in public service to manage those divides in such a way that the principles of our constitution and the wishes of our founding fathers and their wisdom they instilled in our founding documents are preserved and every citizen has a voice in how they wish to live, seek liberty and pursue happiness. (perception). They can only govern successfully in this manner if the people feel secure, feel they are being treated fairly, and the people are willing to be governed. Law enforcement works hand-in-hand with political leaders to enforce the laws and ensure that everybody has a fair chance to voice their opinions in a constitutional, lawful manner without fear of reprisal from groups with opposite points of view.

Historically this has been done by majority rule with the art of compromise on both the majority and the minority to come to an agreement that works for most. It will never work for everybody and we will always have extremist groups that perceive they have been wronged. When the process breaks down law enforcement’s job becomes that much more difficult. Extremist groups pop up and recruit from like-minded people who perceive they are being wronged by the system. It becomes impossible for law enforcement to keep their fingers on all these pulses when groups pop up under the radar.

Over the past several years, particularly over the summer, we have seen extremism rear its ugly head often unchecked. Law enforcement has been handcuffed by political leadership in their ability to respond and ensure public order. Extremist groups and their members mingle into the social justice movements and their whereabouts and activities get lost in the clutter. Political leaders gravitate to the various movements like bugs to the back porch light. Extremists mingled into the social movement often quickly hijack the movement’s message and the entire movement’s message quickly becomes lost. The movement then gets painted with a broad brush, which plays into extremist hands.

We saw street violence and chaos while law enforcement was forced by leaders with no understanding of how the thin blue line stands between order and total chaos to stand down and watch. We saw cities burn, federal courthouses under siege, autonomous zones permitted to exist, and law enforcement shamed and permitted to be turned into the (perceived) enemy. Extremist groups such as Antifa not only gained traction but they were able to recruit numbers which gave them (perceived) power which in turn became their reality and resulted in violence. The ability of law enforcement to keep their finger on their pulse was lost.

As I previously indicated in this piece, Newton’s law kicked in. Extremist groups on the other side such as the Proud Boys seeing all of this going on have the perception that their way of life, way of thinking is now being threatened and push back. They use the words of the sitting president and other political leaders as a rally cry to make their perceptions their reality. There is little negotiation and compromise between the two political parties, only rhetoric, which does nothing other than create political sound bites.

Add the (perception) of a corrupt election, national leadership that did nothing but point fingers at each other over the pandemic, and the political leadership on both sides attacking each other the ranks of the perceived disenfranchised ballooned along with the built-up frustrations which became their reality. Seeing other federal buildings taken and autonomous zones filled with lawlessness and violence permitted to exist, while the police were made to permit it to happen, led to the explosion of violence we saw in Washington on Jan. 6. The extremist motto, if the other side can take a federal building in major cities, without law enforcement interceding with very little consequences, we can one-up them and take the Capitol and correct all those perceived wrongs. Once again, perception becomes reality and the possibility of violence becomes probability with law enforcement doing its best to stand in the middle and keep the opposing views apart.

There are not enough law enforcement officers that can enforce the law and hold the line when the numbers joining in with amped-up extremists on either side of an issue decide they will not be governed. We saw what happened on Jan. 6. Citizens died, police officers lost their lives, and their ranks were thinned by more than 50 with injuries, some of which will be career-ending. The total casualty list of all of those involved will likely never be known. The psychological damage to the police, the public, and the democracy will likely be immense.

The next obvious question is where do we go from here? Law enforcement cannot police a populace that does not want policed and no longer think of the rule of law as the answer. The fire must be taken away from under the boiling pot and the pot must be removed from the hot stove. Since Jan. 6 that has yet to happen. The rhetoric continues and unprecedented political action continues that give the perception of being punitive and politically motivated. People who felt disenfranchised (perceived) are being silenced and their (perceived) First Amendment rights as expressed over over social media are being taken away. None of this has lowered the temperature and law enforcement and the thin blue line is the only thing standing in the way of total chaos. Never has the old phrase when you are in a hole stop digging been more appropriate.

Law enforcement will continue to hold the line as best as they can. They will do so because that is what they are trained to do, swore an oath to do, and fundamentally believe is the right thing to do. We all swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, but we need help. We need to have the temperature lowered until cooler heads can regain control. It is a known fact in law enforcement and parenting that it is exceedingly difficult and requires a great deal of energy to stay white hot mad for any length of time. Law enforcement needs all parties involved to step back from the brink, take a deep breath, and simply shut up. Time will not heal all wounds, but it will help deescalate the current situation until cooler heads can come to a mutual agreement. That is why the police use hostage negotiators in those situations to buy some time and deescalate incident so everybody can go home alive.

Our countries leaders must do their job and bring the temperature down and compromise with each other. The thin blue line can not hold the line forever. If we must line our Capitol with armed military as opposed to civilian law enforcement to maintain order and protect the union and the peaceful transition of power that makes this great country unique, then we will all lose and our union is in danger of being lost.

As a young trooper it was an honor to be selected to get into my dress uniform and join troopers from all 50 states along with allied police agencies from around the country to go to Washington, usually freeze our tails off and man the parade route to celebrate the peaceful transition of power in the greatest country on the planet. Yes, we were there to keep the peace, which was never a problem, but we were all proud to stand and thrilled to render honors to both our outgoing commander in chief and our incoming commander and chief. Today troopers from my state are once again in Washington. This time they are dressed in riot gear to assist and make sure the transition goes as directed by the Constitution. They will do their duty, but it will be with a heavy heart.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@hstoday.us. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

David Reichenbaugh
David Reichenbaugh's passion for law enforcement started at a very early age which led him to seek a degree in criminal justice. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is a graduate of North Western University Traffic Institute School of Police Staff and Command. David retired after 23 years service with the Maryland State Police as a Lieutenant and Barrack Commander in Cumberland Maryland. David's career started as a road Trooper and continued on as a criminal investigator, undercover narcotics investigator, major violators supervisor, homicide and high profile case investigator, and assisted in the development of the intelligence unit of the MSP post 9/11. He is the author of "In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers."

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