Purpose: Controversy surrounding the BLM movement and the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, has been felt even within the ranks of policing. Participation of police officers in the Capitol riot seemed to be at odds with the duty and responsibility of those officers who sustained serious injuries that day. Method: Using data collected from active law enforcement officers, the current study examines how political identity may play a role in a police officer’s perceptions of law enforcement engagement in political protests. Results: The only significant difference found was police refraining from engaging in or participating with BLM. No other significant relationship existed between political identity and protest with other groups by police. Conclusions: These findings suggest that while there may be some reluctance to engage in BLM by police, there is not overwhelming evidence to suggest that police officers are politically motivated in their opinions of public protest.
Politics, Policing, Law enforcement, Political identity, Public protest, BLM, January 6th Capitol riot
Introduction: Politics and the Police
The insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have contested and transformed the political discourse on American democracy and policing. Both groups vehemently displayed their grievances with the political and criminal justice systems. Capitol protesters were angered that the Republican incumbent Donald Trump, was defeated in the 2020 presidential election by Democratic candidate Joe Biden. BLM protesters are seeking redress for the increasingly disproportionate number of black citizens killed at the hands of police. Police are also a common thread between these two groups. During the insurrection, it was the police who defended members of Congress and Capitol staff from the rioters. The police are also the subject of the BLM protests because of their deadly encounters with Black citizens. Political identity is an important factor in how members of these groups attribute their rationale for civil unrest (Haider-Markel et al., 2018). Explicit and implicit racists beliefs also provide a context for police behavior. After putting the BLM and Capitol protests in context with racial and political identities, this article, using a convenience sampling of 96 police officers, is an exploratory study to investigate whether police officers’ political identities influenced their opinions of law enforcement participation in the Capitol insurrection, BLM protests and racism within their agencies.
The 2020 U.S. presidential election was a battle down to the wire. It was filled with allegations of foreign interference, personal attacks, voter fraud, and incessant blistering campaign ads. The election also took place in the midst of a deadly pandemic, which took hundreds of thousands of lives and left the economy in turmoil. The republican incumbent Donald Trump repeatedly alleged the election was stolen, although numerous unsuccessful lawsuits, vote recounts, and audits proved otherwise. Many well-funded pro-Trump media outlets flooded the airwaves and internet with the battle cry “Stop the Steal” (Parmar, 2021; Nevins, 2021). The former president continued to fuel the false rhetoric and rallied thousands of his supporters to Washington, D.C. on January 6th, the day Congress was to certify the Electoral College votes to confirm Joe Biden as president (Naylor, 2021). According to Reiferson (2021) Trump’s speech contained “coded, implicit appeals for those in the audience to take matters into their own hands to reverse the results of the election” (para. 3). After being worked into a frenzy provoked by the former president to fight for their country, the enraged protestors violently attacked the U.S. Capitol.
The January 6th Capitol riot will be remembered as one of the darkest days in the annals of American policing. Approximately 140 police officers from the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) sustained severe injuries from being assaulted by rioters with stun guns, fire extinguishers, baseball bats, lasers, pipes, bear spray, and flag poles containing the thin blue line flag, which ironically symbolizes the courage and sacrifice of police (Jonsson, 2019; Schmidt & Broadwater, 2021). One Capitol police officer, Brian Sicknick, died from injuries sustained during the insurrection. Three Trump supporters also died. An Air Force veteran was shot by Capitol police when she attempted to breach a secured area, and two other pro-Trump supporters died from complications associated with their participation at the riot (Bump, 2021). A Capitol police officer and a MPD officer, Howard Liebengood and Jeffrey Smith, both died by suicide after the event. Furthermore, 38 Capitol officers, 150 national guard, and several members of Congress tested positive for the coronavirus after the insurrection (Williams, 2021). In the months following the Capitol insurrection, seven Capitol police officers have filed a lawsuit against more than two dozen entities, including former President Donald Trump, alleging their actions provoked the deadly assault on January 6, 2021 (Duggan & Hsu, 2021). The scars left from the attack on the Capitol are long and deep.
In addition to physical injuries, many police officers suffered emotional trauma from being attacked by protestors who not only proclaimed to “back the blue”, a euphemism to express support for police, but were active and former members of law enforcement and the military (Rogers, 2021). Law enforcement was catapulted into the 2020 presidential election when Trump made comments at his rallies condoning police violence, prompting police unions across the country to throw their support behind the Republican candidate (Oriola, 2020). Across the country, police officers showed their support by wearing “Cops for Trump” and “Trump 2020” shirts, hats and face masks, even while in uniform. It is reported that as many as 30 sworn police officers from several departments not only attended the January 6, 2021 Trump rally, but also participated in the riot at the Capitol that day (Westervelt, 2021). Several of these officers have been charged with federal offenses, fired, or are under some form of discipline or investigation by their departments. To compound the trauma to police officers who fiercely fought off the rioters, six of their fellow Capitol police officers were suspended and 29 are under investigation for their involvement in the riot (Mai, 2021). The inexplicable police on police violence demonstrated by some of the rioters at the Capitol bolsters the need for answers to the rise in overt police violence.
Black Lives Matter
The BLM movement has grown as the disproportionate number of deadly encounters between Black citizens and police has risen. However, it was the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police that raised the consciousness of millions of people as the media incessantly aired the video of George Floyd’s murder. That image of a white officer with his knee on the neck of a black man handcuffed lying face down on the ground, is forever seared in the minds of many. Americans from all walks of life poured into the streets to protest George Floyd’s death. Floyd’s name and face became symbolic of police violence for so many others that died at the hands of police before and after him. In spite of all of the media coverage of rioting and looting at BLM events, a recent study found 94% of pro-BLM protests were peaceful, and only 6% of the protests reported looting, violent activity, and confrontations with police (Kishi et al., 2021). The study also noted of this 6% some of the violence and vandalism may have been provoked by aggressive police tactics against protesters by both police and anti-BLM protesters.
BLM became the new voice of opposition to racist police violence. This voice was echoed at 11,000 protests held in the U.S. as well as some 40 countries around the world (Kirby, 2020; Kishi et al., 2021). Police across the county have also participated in BLM protests (Knowles & Stanley-Becker, 2020; Silverman, 2020; Oliveira, 2020). There are scenes of police in riot gear ‘taking a knee’ in front of protestors, images of White officers and Black protesters praying with fists raised and marching in support of police reform.
As part of their reform agenda, BLM has called for the defunding of the police, encouraged major corporations to raise their awareness and social footprint on the issue of racial injustice, and has been instrumental in local and state governments’ removal of Confederate symbols and statues. However, the attention and responses gained from the pressure applied by BLM has raised resentment among white nationalists and conservative groups. (Drakulich et al., 2020). Many members of these groups who occupy and benefit from controlling organizations and institutions that Embrick and Moore (2020) refer to as the ‘white spaces’ see BLM as a threat.
White Supremacists in Policing
Racism and explicit biases are pillars of these structural and institutional white spaces and are considered to be the catalyst for many of the deadly encounters between police and black citizens. Reports of white supremacists groups infiltrating police departments is not new as prior studies reveal that some officers have openly expressed their affiliation with white nationalist groups (German, 2020; Johnson, 2019; Ward, 2018). There have been allegations of white supremacists infiltrating the U.S. Capitol police department as well. During the last 20 years, a staggering 250 black officers have sued the agency for racist policies and practices (Kaplan & Sapien, 2021), giving credence to the allegations that several Capitol police who have far-right affiliations were involved in the insurrection.
At a recent Congressional Hearing before the Committee on Oversight and Reform, information was disclosed from a 2006 FBI declassified report warning police agencies of ongoing recruitment and infiltration by white supremacists (Rogers, 2021). The report detailed how supremacist called “ghost skins” are coached and trained to blend in and infiltrate police agencies, which provides support for the assertion that a good deal of the police violence imposed upon black citizens is part of the police culture. The infiltration of police departments by white supremacists has reached what Johnson (2019) called “epidemic” levels. Many have questioned the lack of involvement of law enforcement leaders to address this problem (German, 2020; Nevins, 2021, Westervelt, 2021) and have suggested “systemic reluctance” (Rogers, 2021) is the reason.
A recent rise in hate speech also supports the assertion of a racist police culture as some 100 departments in 40 states have been forced to address racist texts, emails, and social media posts sent by officers and supervisors (Johnson, 2019). Perez and Ward (2019) examined this “racist blue humor” and argued it “fosters the social acceptability of prejudice and discrimination among officers, normalizing a culture of dehumanization that legitimizes structural and direct violence” (p. 1810). Many of those who engage in this behavior frequently use neutralization techniques (Colvin & Pisoiu, 2018; Sykes & Matza, 1957; Wihlem et al., 2019) to conceal their ideologies (Maruna & Copes, 2005; Vysotsky & McCarthy, 2016) or to justify their actions. For example, by denying the victim of racial slurs or denying the fact that these slurs are offensive claiming “it was just a joke” (Kaptien & van Helvoot, 2019) are common behavior neutralizing techniques that have allowed many officers to be excused for their actions.
Political identities imply a partisan orientation that is developed around social identities. The recent 2020 U.S. presidential election was a clear indication of how polarizing political identities can be. Identification with particular social and political groups offers its members a common shared worldview (in group), and those who do not share these views (out group) are considered and often treated as outsiders. Political identification provides a means for viewing experiences and circumstances. The Republican party long ago fueled identity politics when it adopted law enforcement officers as “American Heroes,” and promoting “Blue Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The worldviews of the pro-Trump supporters who participated in the insurrection and those BLM supporters are further examples of how polarizing political identities can be.
The 2020 presidential election demonstrated that a large majority of black Americans politically identify as Democrats, whereas law enforcement officers typically identify as Republican. Democrats and liberals see the world through the lens of individuals having limited agency, and that circumstances are often out of their control. Therefore, they are likely to view problems as broad and systemic (Haider-Markel et al., 2017). The Republican and conservative worldview sees individuals as having agency for their choices and situations, problems are isolated and not systemic. They are likely to identify with police officers and consider them part of the in-group “and therefore police violence against blacks would be viewed as isolated and uncommon” (Haider-Markel & Joslyn 2017, p. 364). A recent study of nearly 8,000 U.S. police found that 67% perceived the deaths of black Americans during encounters with police as isolated incidents, and 31% saw it as a broader issue between people of color and police in general (Morin, et al., 2017). The review of the literature makes clear that the influence of political identity on law enforcement officers’ perceptions of police engagement in public protests and participation in politically centric groups required further examination. Therefore, this study sought to uncover any possible associations through the following research questions:
RQ1: Is there an association between political identity and police officer opinions of political protest?
RQ2: Does political identity influence how police officers perceive police participation in the Black Lives Matter protests and police participation in the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riot?
RQ3: Is there a correlation between police officers’ political identity and their perception of whether white nationalists have infiltrated policing.
Methods & Research Design
To determine the influence of political identity as a variable in police opinions of law enforcement engagement in protests and politically charged organizations, a survey design was used to obtain quantitative data from active, fulltime police officers from municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. The 38-item questionnaire collected demographic data including gender, race, ethnicity, age range, law enforcement rank and type of agency where employed. The survey also included questions pertaining to the participants’ political identity. Questions were drawn from the Survey Monkey® U.S. Political Identification Template which asked respondents to identify if they thought of themselves as Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, or something else as well as how strongly they identified themselves as such. The remaining nineteen questions in the survey contained a 7-point Likert scale measures for the variables of police participation in Black Lives Matter protests as well as police participation in the January 6, 2021 riot at the United States Capitol and white nationalists’ involvement in policing. A score of 1 corresponded to the phrase “Very strongly disagree,” 2 for “Strongly disagree,” a score of 3 corresponded to the phrase “Mildly disagree,” 4 corresponded to the phrase “Neutral,” a score of 5 corresponded to the phrase “Mildly agree,” a 6 corresponded to the phrase “Strongly agree,” and a score of 7 corresponded to the phrase “Very strongly disagree.”
Participants were also asked to select which of the following statements they MOST agreed with, with corresponding coding and labeling:
Police officers should refrain from engaging in public protests (1) OR Police officers are American citizens and have the right to engage in public protests (2).
Police officers should refrain from exhibiting their political identity while on duty (1), OR Police officers are American citizens and have the right to exhibit their political identity both on-duty and off-duty (2), OR Both (3) OR Neither (4).
The BLM movement is primarily motivated by: hatred of police/authority (1) OR yearning for positive social change (2).
The January 6th Capitol riot was primarily motivated by: desire for freedom and democracy (1) OR hatred of government/authority (2).
Police officers involved in BLM protests should be put on administrative leave and investigated (1), OR Police officers involved in the January 6th Capitol riot should be put on administrative leave and investigated (2), OR Both (3), OR Neither (4).
Police officers should refrain from supporting or engaging in the BLM movement/activities (1), OR Police officers should refrain from supporting or engaging in white nationalist and far-right group activities (2), OR Both (3), OR Neither (4).
Police officers involved in white nationalist groups are (1) rare, isolated incidents OR (2) part of a systemic issue in law enforcement OR (3) neither.
The sampling population for this study was fulltime, actively employed police officers from municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. Using convenience sampling, data were obtained from 106 police officers recruited through announcements posted on various online sources such as Linked In® and Facebook® as well as directly emailed to law enforcement contacts and groups known to the researchers such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers (NOBLE). Of the 106 participants who responded to the survey, ten survey responses were eliminated due to the amount of missing data, resulting in a final total of 96 participants.
The resulting characteristics of the respondents were overwhelmingly white males who were not Hispanic or Latino. Most of them were between the ages of 45-54, were educated, holding either a bachelors or master’s degree and ranked primarily between officers and sergeants as shown in the frequency distribution of Table 1.
Frequency Distribution for Descriptive Statistics (n=96)
Other/Prefer not to say
Bachelor’s degree & below
Master’s degree & above
Law Enforcement Rank
Officer to Captain
Major and above
For the variable “political identity,” law enforcement officers were asked to disclose where they fell on the political spectrum. Table 2 illustrates the distribution of political identity of the 96 survey respondents, with 51% reporting as Republican. Of those self-identified Republicans, 32.63% of them felt they are strong Republicans, whereas of those reporting as Democrats, only 3.23% of them identify as strong Democrats.
Political Identity (n=96)
Respondents who reported as Independents were asked if they thought of themselves as more similar to Republicans than Democrats, more similar to Democrats or Republicans, or equally similar to both Republicans and Democrats. There were 25.814% of the Independent participants who felt they were more similar to Republicans while those who were more similar to Democrats was only 4.30%. Those respondents who identified as Independents who regarded themselves as equally similar to both Republicans and Democrats was 11.83%.
All of the participants stated that they have voted in one or more elections run by the U.S. government during the last ten years. When asked who they agree with more about what the government should and should not do, 66.67% of participants agreed more with Republicans. Of all the political candidates they voted for in the November 2020 presidential election, 90.6% of the respondents voted for Republican candidates, 53.1% of them voted for some Democrat candidates and 25% of them voted for Independents. The survey respondents were asked to select which statement they felt to be most true regarding exhibition of their political identity with 86.46% of them agreeing that police officers should refrain from displaying their political identity while on duty.
To examine the dependent variable of law enforcement officer opinions of public protests, we asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with police officers participating in public protests. Most of the respondents (59.38%) felt that police officers should not engage in such and 40.63% felt that police officers are American citizens and have the right to take part just as any other citizen might. Along the same lines, 61.46% of participants felt that police officers who are both involved in Black Lives Matter protests as well as those officers who engaged in the January 6th Capitol riot should be put on administrative leave and investigated. Furthermore, nearly 74% of the respondents agreed that police officers who were involved in any violent protests associated with any organization should lose their badges. The breakdown of police officers by political identity shows that 74.47% of Republican officers felt that police involved in violent protests should lose their badges, no matter what organization they were involved in. On the other hand, only 55.55% of Democrat police officers agreed with that statement. Independent voting police officers were more aligned with Republicans at 75% in agreement. When looking specifically at BLM protests and the January 6 insurrection, again, there were more Republican officers (68.09%) than Democrats (33.33%) who agreed that those officers who participated should be put on leave and investigated as illustrated in the distributions of Figure 1.
Respondents were also asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements related to the motivations behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the actors in the January 6, 2021 United States Capitol riot. Among Republican officers, 85.11%, disagreed or strongly disagreed that the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting for civil rights and participants are justified in using aggressive tactics to promote their cause. Along the same lines, when asked about their agreement as to whether the participants in the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot were patriots and were justified in using aggressive tactics to promote their cause, 95.8% of the Republican respondents again disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Not surprisingly, most of the respondents (82%), considered the primary motivation of the Black Lives Matter movement stemmed from hatred of police and authority with only 18% stating they felt BLM was motivated by a yearning for positive social change. This result was expected, given the tensions and division between police and the BLM in recent year. Though not as strong in conviction as their stance with Black Lives Matter, the officers did show similar feelings about the actors of the January 6th Capitol riot. Of the officers surveyed, 68% of them felt that the insurrectionists were motivated by hatred of government and authority whereas only 32% of them believed those participants had a desire for freedom and democracy.
Regarding participation in certain groups or organizations, 77% of the respondents agreed that police officers should refrain from supporting or engaging in both the Black Lives Matter movement as well as any white nationalist or far-right groups. Additionally, 80% of the respondents considered police officer involvement in white nationalist groups to be rare, isolated incidents. When asked whether they would feel safe working with police officers associated with either of these organizations, 32% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they would feel safe working with someone who participated in the Black Lives Matter movement. Conversely, only 16% of respondent agreed or strongly agreed that they would feel safe working with a police officer who was a member of a white nationalist group. Most of the officers, 70%, stated that they were not aware of any law enforcement officers who were linked to Black Lives Matter, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Antifa, Qanon or other organizations.
There was generally strong support from the respondents for classifying Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Qanon, and white nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers as domestic terrorist organizations. The greatest agreement was shown in 90% of the respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that most police officers treat people of all races equally and 99% of respondents stating that high profile fatalities of African Americans by law enforcement have made policing harder. Most participants also felt that there is somewhat of a presence of “bad apples” in law enforcement and 64% of them consider the participation of other law enforcement officers in the January 6th Capitol riot has made policing harder as well.
To test our hypotheses, an ANOVA test was conducted with SPSS® software to determine the significance that the variable “political identity” had on the dependent variable of “participation in public protests”. The only statistical difference between means was in relation to whether police should refrain from participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, where groups diverged along political identity as shown in Figure 4. Again, given the characteristics of the law enforcement population, this was not a surprising result, as police agencies have also been considered to be white spaces in which law enforcement officers primarily identify as Republican and those views of “law and order” are often diametrically opposed to tenets of the BLM movement. No other significant relationship existed between political identity and participation in involvement with other groups by police. An alpha level of .05 or less was used to determine a statistically significant relationship.
Research question three sought to uncover to what degree political identity impacts whether police officers feel that white supremacists have infiltrated police agencies. Seeing as the response to the question as to whether there were police officers in white nationalist groups was overwhelming “a rare, isolated event” at 80%, we assumed there would likely be no statistical significance to be found with the variable of political identity. As predicted, a one-way ANOVA revealed a significance level of .816 (Table 3) and we therefore accepted the null hypothesis.
Sum of Squares
Police involvement with groups
Police should refrain from BLM involvement
Police and white nationalist group involvement
Police participation in January 6th riot
Strengths and limitations
One of the most important aspects of any research study is the acknowledgement that while the data may yield some merit, it is not without its shortcomings. This only serves to propel forward honest, scientifically based research that addresses not only the strengths of the study, but the limitations as well. We recognize firstly that the sample size for the study is insufficient to make the results generalizable for the law enforcement population. Both the convenience sampling method and the brief timeframe for which the survey was made available to participants prevented us from reaching more of our target population. Furthermore, given that the January 6th Capitol Riot is still in the forefront of the news media currently, potential participants may have been reluctant to engage in the study as this has stirred some polarizing debate.
We also recognize that our sample lacked diversity as the majority of the respondents were white, male and self-identified as Republicans. However, we understand that the law enforcement workforce itself does not reflect general workforce diversity as it is primarily comprised of white males as well. U.S. Census Bureau data (2019) show that 84.9% of police officers are male, with 67% of those reporting as white/Caucasian. Given this, while the sample isn’t necessarily representative of a diverse workforce, it is representative of the law enforcement profession.
It is further acknowledged that this type of survey research may be affected by social desirability bias. Given the tense political climate and the investigation of several police officers across the country for their participation in the January 6th Capitol insurrection, the participants of the current study may have felt compelled to respond in what they felts was the most socially acceptable manner. Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not concede that further research should be conducted on this topic using a theoretical framework to explain police officer decision-making as this study is atheoretical.
Discussion and Conclusions
In summary, as to our research hypothesis question we found:
RQ1: Is there an association between political identity and police officer opinions of political protest? A statistical association was not formed between these police officers’ political identity and their opinions of public protest.
RQ2: Does political identity influence how police officers perceive police participation in the Black Lives Matter protests and police participation in the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riot? There is no association between a law enforcement officer’s personal political identity and how they perceive police participation in political protests in general. However, a statistically significant finding was made at it relates to law enforcement officers participating in BLM activities.
RQ3: Is there a correlation between police officers’ political identity and their perception of whether white nationalists have infiltrated policing? No significance was noted regarding a police officer’s political identity and whether or not they feel that there are white nationalist officers among their peers.
These findings suggest that, while there may be some reluctance on the part of law enforcement officers to participate or approve of officers’ participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, it cannot be assumed that their political identity is a precursor to that unwillingness to engage. The disproportionate fatalities of African American citizens by white police officers have propelled the BLM movement forward in recent years, culminating in widespread protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. The Black Lives Matter voices rose loudly in opposition to law enforcement and their use of deadly force. This naturally created a rift between the black community and police departments across the nation. Even still, it cannot be assumed that political identity alone is a predictor of how a police officer perceives the BLM movement or even their fellow officers’ engagement in the movement. Rather, the police officers who participated in the current study, perceive the participation of police officers in ANY violent protests as negative, including the participation of law enforcement during the January 6th Capitol insurrection.
This study also supports assertions by Foust (2018) that police officers may experience loyalty conflicts. He suggests that police officers may have to evaluate their level of loyalty to one object or another. Absolute loyalty in one area that may put the officer in direct conflict with loyalty to another aspect of his or her profession. However, other values at hand in a particular situation may be more important than loyalty to the officer, who must then decide if their loyalty should be mitigated or abandoned. As Richards (2010) points out, law enforcement may often find themselves in problematic dilemmas regarding conflicting loyalties. He contends that loyalty is an important virtue for law enforcement officers but that it exists alongside other instrumental virtues such as courage, integrity, and pride. Furthermore, he states that to police, the concept of loyalty exists in a fashion that it does not in most other professions. For our police officers in the current study, it may be suggested that their loyalty to the ethics of the police profession outweighed the loyalty they felt to their political identity. Although former President Donald Trump postured himself as the “law and order” president (see Nakamuar & Hermann, 2020), signing executive actions on police reform in an effort to garner the support of law enforcement, the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection nevertheless prompted the respondents to adhere to the police code of ethics, rather than political allegiances. This suggests per Richards (2010) that for the law enforcement officers in the present study, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
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