For two police officers in Virginia who lined up for a photo during the deadly U.S. Capitol uprising, the inventory has been swift and public: they were identified, charged with crimes and arrested.
But for five Seattle officers, the result is less clear. Their identity is still secret, two are on leave and three continue to work while a police watchdog investigates whether their actions in the country’s capital on January 6 crossed the line from protected political speech to crime.
The contrasting cases highlight the dilemma faced by police departments across the country as they review the behavior of dozens of officers who were in Washington the day of the uprising of supporters of President Donald Trump. Officials and experts agree that officers involved in the melee should be fired and charged for their role.
But what about the officers who only participated in the Trump rally before the uprising? How does a department balance an officer̵
An Associated Press investigation of law enforcement agencies nationwide showed that at least 31 officers in 12 states are being investigated by their regulators for their behavior in the District of Columbia or face criminal charges for participating in the riot. Officials are investigating whether the officers violated laws or policies or participated in the violence in Washington. A Capitol police officer died after being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher when rebels came down on the building and many other officers were injured. A woman was shot dead by Capitol Police and three other people died after medical emergencies during the chaos.
Most officers have not been publicly identified; only a few have been charged. Some were identified by online revelations. Others were reported by their colleagues or handed over.
They come from some of the country’s largest cities – for example, three Los Angeles officials and a sheriff’s deputy – as well as government agencies and a Pennsylvania police force of nine officers. Among them are a sheriff in Oklahoma and a police chief in New Hampshire who have admitted to being at the demonstration but refused to enter the Capitol or break the law.
“If they were not at work, it’s completely free speech,” said Will Aitchison, a lawyer in Portland, Oregon who represents police officers. “People have the right to express their political views, regardless of who is standing next to them. You just do not get guilt by union. ”
But Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School, said an officer’s presence at the rally creates a credibility issue as law enforcement agencies work to repair community trust, especially after last summer’s protests against police brutality triggered by police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Communities will question the integrity of officers who participated in the demonstration along with “individuals who proudly profess racist and divisive views,” she said. “It questions whether these officers are interested in engaging with the police in a way that creates trust and legitimacy in all communities, including color communities.”
In Rocky Mount, a Virginia town of about 1,000, Sgt. Thomas Robertson and officer Jacob Fracker were suspended without pay and face criminal charges after posting a picture of themselves inside the Capitol during the riot. According to legal records, Robertson wrote on social media that “The Left is just crazy because we are actually attacking the government, that is the problem … Right ONE DAY took f (asterisk) (asterisk) (asterisk) (asterisk) US Capitol. Keep stinging us. ”
Attempts to contact the couple failed, and the court records do not show lawyers. Rocky Mount executives declined to be interviewed. In a statement, they said the events at the Capitol were tragic.
“We stand by and add our support to those who have condemned the violence and illegal activity that took place that day,” said Police Chief Ken Criner, Captain Mark Lovern and Mayor James Ervin. “Our city and our police department absolutely do not tolerate illegal or unethical behavior by anyone, including our officers and staff.”
Across the country, five Seattle officers are under investigation by the city’s Police Department. Two officers posted photos of themselves on social media while in the district, and officials are investigating to determine where they were and what they were doing. Three others told the supervisor that they went to Washington for the events and are being investigated for what they did while they were there.
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said his department supports officers’ freedom of speech and that those in the nation’s capital would be fired if they “were directly involved in the uprising at the U.S. Capitol.”
But police chiefs need to evaluate more than just clear criminal behavior, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy group. They also need to consider how their actions affect a department’s credibility, he said.
Officers’ rights to first amendment “do not extend to words that may be violent or perhaps express certain prejudices,” Wexler said, “because it will reflect on what they do when they work, when they testify in court. ”
Throughout the summer and fall, Seattle police – along with officers elsewhere – were criticized for their handling of mass protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s death. The city received more than 19,000 complaints against officers, most for excessive use of force and misuse of pepper spray.
Andrew Myerberg, director of the Seattle Office of Police Accountability, said none of the officers now under investigation were involved in these cases.
But Sakara Remmu, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle / King County, said officers should be fired anyway. Their public declarations of solidarity with Trump promote not only the distrust of society, but terror against the entire department, she said.
“It definitely matters when the design of racial rifts and racial hatred comes through because we already have a documented history and heritage of what it means in this country,” Remmu said.
In Houston, the chief of police charged an officer who resigned and was later charged in the uprising. A lawyer for Officer Tam Pham said the 18-year-old veteran of the force “very sorry” to be at the convention and was “deeply remorseful.”
But many chiefs have said that their officers did not commit any crimes.
“Arkansas State Police respect an employee’s rights and freedom to use their vacation time of their choice,” spokesman Bill Sadler said of two officers who attended the Trump demonstration.
Malik Aziz, the former chairman and CEO of the National Black Police Association, likened the condemnation of all officers who were in Washington to tarring all the protesters who took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd with some violent and destructive acts.
Aziz was a major in the Dallas Police Department, saying that privately acting police have the same rights as other Americans, but that deliberately attending an event should be disqualifying for an officer.
“There is no place in law enforcement for that person,” Aziz said.