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Credit: Seattle Police Department / Facebook

Seattle cops make up biggest known contingent of cops at Jan. 6 Capitol rally

Five off-duty Seattle officers are known to have attended the rally at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

It is still unclear whether they broke the law or whether they participated in the insurrection.

Still, alarm bells are going off for some people in the city.

“What more can we do to help understand how deep the iceberg really is here?” asked Douglas Wagoner, a member of the Community Police Commission, a citizen advisory group which discussed the matter in a Zoom meeting.

“I can't think of anything that's more problematic for trust,” he said, “especially at this already tenuous moment, than to find out that there are potential officers potentially involved in this attempted coup.”

Another member of the group, a Black officer named Mark Mullens, talked about colleagues who've worn MAGA hats to the precinct.

“To me, that's like wearing a Confederate flag, or bringing a Confederate flag to work,” he said.

Underlying this discussion is a deeper question: Is it acceptable for cops to be pro-Trump? It's not a call that Andrew Myerberg wants to make. He runs Seattle's Office of Police Accountability, which is investigating the five officers. His focus is on whether they broke the law in Washington, not the beliefs that took them there.

“I think people are entitled to their political views, and I don't think it is my job to be policing those political views unless there's some component of it that clearly violates SPD policy,” he said.

At the same time, Myerberg said it's no secret that police are often more conservative than the community.

“It certainly creates friction when law enforcement is policing a city that's as progressive as Seattle or Washington, D.C., or Portland,” he said.

Context often plays a role in whether a cop's political views are acceptable. Georgetown Law professor Christy Lopez is an expert in this area. She says courts apply a balancing test – a police officer's free speech rights on one side and on the other, a police department's interest in protecting its reputation and legitimacy.

“What does that tell us, for example, if an officer wants to wear a MAGA hat to a baseball game?” she said. “Is that balancing test different on January 5 than it is on January 7? Maybe. Maybe that's different after we have come to believe that Trump actually instigated an attack on the Capitol.”

Lopez isn't saying that the balance has changed in that way, just that it could. With that in mind, some police officers are now scrubbing their social media just in case. Houston Police Officers' Union President Doug Griffith says some cops there became concerned when the chief recently vowed to search for political extremists in the ranks.

“We received several calls from our members asking, how is he going to do this? What does this mean? Does this mean if I liked a Trump tweet that I'm going to be disciplined?”

Griffith assured the officers that that would not happen, though he also gives them this advice.

“If you can't post on your church bulletin board what you're going to put on Facebook or Twitter, then you probably shouldn't put it out there,” he said.

Griffith doesn't believe the many Trump supporters in law enforcement, people like himself, now have to worry about being penalized for that support. But when it comes to drawing lines, he has one of his own. He says all officers, regardless of political sympathies, need to respect the nation's electoral process and the fact that Joe Biden is now the president.”

As a candidate and as president, Trump embraced police. His rallies featured "thin blue line" flags and calls for law and order.

A law enforcement officer in the Midwest, who did not want to be named because he doesn't have permission to speak to the media, told NPR his colleagues' support for Trump hardened during the anti-police protests and riots following the death of George Floyd. Floyd was physically restrained by police on a Minneapolis street and later died in custody.

"There is a siege mentality in police-land," the officer says. "It says the left is just going to keep pushing until we get rid of cops."

He says his colleagues resent the media's focus on abuses and excessive force by police this summer while playing down — in the officers' opinion — the episodes of looting, the burning of a police precinct building in Minneapolis and similar attacks on criminal justice buildings in Portland, Ore. He says their distrust of the media bolsters their belief in Trump's baseless claims of a stolen election.

"They don't exactly worship him, but he is their president. He is their guy," he says.

University of Virginia law professor Rachel Harmon, who studies police interaction with the public, says there are also "substantive" reasons for the police backing of Trump. She cites the administration's early opposition to federal "pattern and practice" reviews of allegations of excessive force by police departments.

Harmon says police liked the administration's message that "individual police officers were being tainted and undermined, and there was undermining of the effectiveness of law enforcement by these overly aggressive investigations of police departments." She says she doesn't agree with that view.

Still, police support for Trump is not monolithic.

"Cops are not as dumb as everybody thinks they are," says Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York City police sergeant who's now an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He says police may have hoped to come under less scrutiny with Trump but soon realized that wasn't going to happen.

Giacalone points to a Trump speech in 2017, when he told an audience of police on Long Island, "Please don't be too nice" to criminal suspects.

"It just made cops' job a lot harder," Giacalone says.

"It provides that bit of information, from the president of the United States, and people take it as Gospel, and this is where you run into problems," he says, referring to community mistrust of law enforcement.

Moments such as that helped set the stage for the anti-police backlash this summer. Lynda R. Williams, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, says police support for Trump has had a "negative effect on the various communities that we're supposed to protect and serve."

"You have people that are working off their political stance, instead of just being neutral and dealing with the problem at hand," Williams says. "The community does not trust law enforcement, and that does not help it."

Giacalone, the retired sergeant, agrees that police organizations should remain politically neutral. And that means, despite the problems created by Trump, police shouldn't rush into the arms of the incoming Democratic administration.

"The vice president-elect didn't win any cops over today, either," Giacalone said Thursday, referring to Kamala Harris' statement that the events at the Capitol were a demonstration of "two systems of justice."

"We saw one that let extremists storm the United States Capitol, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protesters last summer," Harris said.

To Giacalone, that comparison is selective and unfair, and exploits the Capitol chaos to "pile on" the police.

"I think it was like 40 or 50 cops, you know, ended up injured" at the Capitol, he says. "And the cops actually shot and killed a protester. I'd like to have someone point out in the entire summer's worth of unrest where that happened — because it didn't happen."

Yes, he says, there were also massive security failures, but police fought fiercely to hold back the crowd. Five people died, including one officer.

And it's not lost on him that the crowd beating and dragging uniformed officers was made up of the very Trump supporters who are supposedly on the side of law enforcement.

"The cops, in the end, have no friends," he says, and Wednesday "was a prime example of that."