The Uniform is the Target, Extremism is the Threat
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As a young Santa Monica police officer, I was a member of the department’s funeral detail. I had a uniform for those duties, tailored skin tight. I wore it without body armor. In my two years on that detail, I wore that uniform too many times, but if I were in that role today, I wouldn’t do it without body armor. Things have changed.

This week, officers will attend more funerals in Baton Rouge. On Sunday morning, officers were ambushed as they responded to a radio call. Three were killed; three were injured. While details are still emerging, one thing is clear: those officers were attacked because they were wearing the uniform.

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As I’ve written previously, homegrown extremist attacks against law enforcement are occurring at an increasing rate. With the Baton Rouge shootings, 29 officers have died in the line of duty this year, a 62% increase from the same time period in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Police officers are dying, and public sentiment is livid, on all sides of every debate. This is an appropriate time to define who these attackers are and what motivates them. Those who characterize this as a conflict between law enforcement and African-Americans are missing a big piece of the puzzle. It’s not that simple.

What we are facing in these shootings and other attacks (such as the horrific shooting at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston) is homegrown violent extremism.

Extremism is a primary feature of terrorist behavior. Radical ideologies are characterized by intolerance towards opposing interests and differing opinions. Violent extremism occurs when individuals or groups express their ideological beliefs through violence or a call for violence. The Baton Rouge shootings were clearly homegrown violent extremism.

Extremism is a precursor to a terrorist attack, but radical beliefs on their own do not constitute act of terrorism. Extreme beliefs are protected by the First Amendment. It’s why Ku Klux Klan rallies are not only permitted but policed to keep the demonstrations peaceful. In the United States, being a racist is permitted. What is not permitted, and what is accurately called terrorism, is advancing that belief through violence. It is a clear line.

What we are facing are myriad movements and actions driven by radical racial, religious and issue-oriented ideologies, embraced by a collection of extremists. Today, many extremists have their sights trained on law enforcement. The examples are many; a few include:

 

  • In 2010, during a traffic stop in Arkansas, a father and son team of Sovereign Citizens (and anti-government group) killed Sergeant Brandon Paudert and Officer Bill Evans.

 

  • In 2014, Amanda and Jerad Miller executed Las Vegas Officers Igor Soldo and Alyn Beck as they sat eating lunch in a restaurant. Before departing the scene, the couple draped Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) and swastika-laden banners on the officers’ bodies.

 

  • In March 2016, Philadelphia Officer Jesse Hartnett was ambushed by Edward Archer, who used a stolen police weapon in the attack. He emptied the chamber, hitting Hartnett 10 times. Hartnett returned fire, and upon his arrest, Archer pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

This is a clear trend. Multiple ideologies target police, and attacks against law enforcement are accelerating. Since the Baton Rouge attack, public figures have voiced condemnation, saying, yet again, this type of violence happens too often.

Of course it does. But that does not lead us to a higher level of understanding nor towards workable solutions. Now is the time to sort through the dynamics and factors in these kinds of attacks to identify the patterns that can inform a strategic response to the rising threat to law enforcement. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks in Dallas last week and now

Baton Rouge clearly illustrate that the uniform is the target. For these and other attackers, what matters most is the profession (and not the ethnicity) of the target.

By this, strong relationships between communities and the officers sworn to serve them are essential. Just as important is information. There are no easy answers about how to stop these attacks, but all of us have a stake in how we, as a society, collaborate with law enforcement to support public safety and the rule of law.

All life is cheap for violent extremists. For them, murder is an appropriate action, and that evidences that we have a serious problem with HVE in this country. We must not allow that to fester unchecked in the United States. Words are not enough; speeches are not enough; lamentations are not enough. When we take an honest look at the radical ideologies in the

United States, we can begin to understand the true nature of the public safety threat we face. It’s not African-Americans versus police. It’s not extremist Muslims against non-Muslims. It is the insidious, persistent emergence of HVE. When we recognize that, we will take the first step down the road to addressing the real problems in this country.

But if all we do is wring our hands and lament conflict, this will happen again, and there will be more officers on funeral detail. They will probably be wearing body armor, and I can’t blame them.

 

Dr. Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and former assistant chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, is director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California, Sol Price School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @esouthersHVE.


 

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