Sun. May 26th, 2024

The explosive indictment of a District of Columbia police officer accused of aiding the Proud Boys ricocheted through the headlines this week: Before the Jan. 6 riot, Lieutenant Shane Lamond allegedly tipped off the far-right group’s leader Enrique Tarrio about police plans — giving a heads-up about an impending arrest and advising Proud Boys to switch to encrypted texting to avoid law enforcement.

In Washington, where Lamond is a member of the same police force that patrols city streets and battles neighborhood crime, the story has been greeted with a fair amount of surprise: After all, this is a cosmopolitan capital with residents from around the world, a place where the mayor, the police chief, and a majority of Lamond’s fellow officers are people of color. In theory, it ought to be an inhospitable environment for a guy who, according to prosecutors, told the “Western chauvinist” group that “I can’t say it officially, but personally I support you all.”

Yet that surprise may say more about the state of denial in Washington — a city where the national-politics class assumes they live in a deep-blue bubble — than about the reality of the capital’s Metropolitan Police Department.

The idea of a local officer with extremist ties was certainly no surprise to Michael Fanone, the former D.C. cop who became a national figure after being nearly killed by the mob on Jan. 6. Fanone’s memoir last year painted a grim picture of a racially riven local police force riddled with insurrection sympathizers even after scores of officers risked their lives defending the Capitol.

“They did not take it seriously at all,” Fanone said this week of the brass’s reaction to his bestselling book, which includes several troubling scenes from within the department and the local Fraternal Order of Police.

Fanone ultimately left the force, alienated by colleagues who snubbed him for speaking out against political figures he thinks downplayed the riot. Fanone wrote that he feared this segment of the force would place him in physical danger once he returned to the beat. “There clearly still are members of the department that are sympathetic to that ideology,” he told me.

The arrest also didn’t shock Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a civil rights attorney who has spent years in litigation with the department, often on behalf of protesters who claimed to have been mistreated.

Verheyden-Hilliard helped raise the alarm over incidents like a 2017 case where a D.C. officer was spotted at court in a shirt featuring an apparent white supremacist symbol. In 2018, she went to court to force the department to share information about contacts with extremist organizations including the Oath Keepers after video from an extremist group was used as part of the prosecution of several anti-Trump protesters. And in 2019, video surfaced of officers fist-bumping Proud Boys outside the White House.

“It has been brought to their attention repeatedly,” she said. “There has, to our knowledge, never been an investigation or a housecleaning.”

Now the Lamond case may offer another reason to investigate. The indicted officer is not some random beat cop: A 24-year veteran of the department, Lamond led the Intelligence Branch of the department’s Homeland Security unit until last year, when he was suspended after coming under investigation. That investigation culminated in a May 19 obstruction of justice indictment for allegedly lying to investigators who were looking into the relationship with Tarrio.

Tarrio and three other members of the organization, identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, were convicted earlier this month of seditious conspiracy and face a possible 20 years in prison. It’s hard to believe the timing of Tarrio’s conviction and Lamond’s indictment are unrelated.

The indictment may make for difficult reading in blue D.C. According to prosecutors, Lamond and Tarrio communicated 500 times beginning in 2019, often via chummy exchanges. The day after Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was declared, Lamond allegedly texted Tarrio: “Hey, brother. Sad, sad news. You all planning anything?” Later that day, he allegedly advised Tarrio to switch to an encrypted messaging platform because “Alerts are being sent out to [law enforcement] that [social media website] accounts belonging to your people are talking about mobilizing and ‘taking back the country.’”

And on Jan. 4, two days before the assault on the Capitol, Lamond allegedly switched his settings on the Telegram messaging app to automatically delete messages after 10 seconds, and then tipped off Tarrio that he would be arrested for burning a Black Lives Matter sign torn from a downtown D.C. church during a Proud Boys rampage in December.

Lamond has pleaded not guilty, and it’s likely that his defense will be that he was doing his job: Cops work unsavory sources all the time, developing a rapport in order to bring in information. As an intelligence officer, he was supposed to anticipate potential disturbances — a mission that involves charming people like Tarrio so they open up.

Lamond’s lawyer, Mark Schamel, said his client did not share the views of the contacts he made in the line of work. “He’s not a member of any extremist groups and we’re very comfortable that the evidence will show that he was doing his job,” Schamel told me.

A jury will rule on that when the case goes to trial. In the meantime, higher-ups are trying to calm the mood. “We understand this matter sparks a range of emotions, and believe the allegations of this member’s actions are not consistent of our values and our commitment to the community,” the department said in a statement following the arrest.

But officials declined to make anyone available to answer questions about Fanone’s claims, or about how the department vets extremism in the ranks — an issue that’s been a challenge for military and law enforcement across the country. Instead, they pointed me to a broad study of organizational culture commissioned in 2021 and completed this spring. Among other things, it recommends the department create policies to define and screen for extremism.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen, one of the local body’s more outspoken police-reform advocates, told me this week that that’s because the department hasn’t done a true deep dive into the issue — despite saying it was in the works back when councilmembers, after Jan. 6, pondered ordering up an independent investigation. “They look at these individual incidents as one-offs,” he said.

“The indictment that came last week is a major concern, a huge problem,” said Brooke Pinto, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee. “My commitment is to follow up with MPD to make sure that they have systems in place.” Yesterday, after we spoke, she sent a letter to the police chief asking about Lamond’s case and what provisions the department had in place to address extremism.

What’s baffling about local officialdom’s reticence is that, given the District of Columbia electorate, taking a stand against domestic extremists on the force would seem like a political winner — a way pols can burnish their police-skeptic credentials without pushing the sort of controversial defund-the-police policies that alienate voters. You won’t find many people out there who oppose the idea of weeding out followers of organized neo-fascist groups.

But Fanone, now a law enforcement analyst for CNN, says that misunderstands the challenges preoccupying the folks atop his old department, and police forces across the country.

“I think that most law enforcement agencies in this country are scrambling to maintain the officers they have and recruit new ones to replace the hundreds that they’ve lost,” he says. “The last thing that they’re worried about is coming up with a comprehensive screening process for domestic extremism.”

Fanone also has a less charitable theory of why a progressive city wouldn’t jump into action over his allegations of right-wing police radicalism: Local politics in D.C., he thinks, are so hostile to law enforcement that some pols can’t appreciate the difference between an extremist officer and any other officer. Or, at least, he thinks a lot of elected officials don’t see much upside to making an anodyne statement about how most police are brave and good, but a radicalized minority is imperiling public safety, and we ought to make sure none of our officers belong to that dangerous group.

“I think people are so anti-cop that they don’t care,” he says.

The Lamond indictment comes during a season of high-profile scrutiny of local law enforcement in Washington. In House Oversight Committee hearings, legislators have taken turns lambasting city officials and the U.S. attorney for allegedly soft-on-crime policies. For the first time in three decades, Congress also used its prerogative to overturn a duly enacted city law, nixing a rewrite of D.C.’s criminal code.

For their part, D.C. officials have denounced the congressional meddling as undemocratic, bad-faith grandstanding, saying Congress should mind its own business and let Washingtonians handle local affairs just like other Americans.

The congressional agitation has not, however, focused on whether the city’s police department is home to a troubling number of insurrectionist sympathizers. Given the makeup of D.C.’s top Hill critics, this may not be surprising: The leader of the effort to overturn that criminal-code rewrite was Andrew Clyde, the Georgia congressman who once likened Jan. 6 rioters to folks making a “normal tourist visit” to the Capitol.

Instead, members took aim at another measure recently passed by the D.C. Council, a police-accountability bill that codifies some of the reform policies put in place following the 2020 protests against police brutality. Among other things, that’s the bill that finally orders the D.C. auditor’s study of white supremacist ties within the force. Congress voted to overturn that one, too.

Unlike with the prior congressional disapproval, though, President Joe Biden has vowed to veto this effort, which means the mandatory investigation is going to be law.

As far as I’m concerned, a real investigation can’t come a minute too soon. The idea of even a small number of domestic extremists on the force ought to be terrifying — both to federal-Washington folks worried about the security of national institutions and to hometown-D.C. folks who think safe neighborhoods require citizens to feel able to cooperate with police, something that’s tougher if there’s even a slight suspicion that officers may be part of a hate group.

“I am surprised about Shane, but I’m not surprised about this culture because we’ve seen this in other departments across the country,” Donnell Harvin, D.C.’s former homeland security chief, told me. Harvin used to meet weekly with Lamond and says the allegation of alerting Tarrio to his arrest — if true — is far over the line. “I know men and women of the D.C. police department and they’re dedicated to the job. But we definitely need to study this. Congress should commission a study.”

For the record, Harvin, who now teaches at Georgetown, doesn’t think Washington is an outlier. It’s a national problem: Law enforcement, alas, is overrepresented in extremist groups and their allies. And while the capital may be politically monolithic, most of its police live outside the city — in many cases making long commutes from places that aren’t dotted with Black Lives Matter yard signs. Lamond, for instance, lives in distant Stafford County, Va. Historically, Congress has stopped the local government from enacting the police residency requirements that exist in many other cities. If nothing else, a police residential map ought to undercut the federal-city habit of assuming the District is disconnected from the world beyond the Beltway.

What is different from the rest of the country, as we learned on Jan. 6, is that local police in Washington are also part of the defense of the Capitol, sometimes heroically so. In an age when domestic terrorism is one of the top threats, such a force needs to make sure members aren’t tied to the extremists. And if the locals in charge of the department don’t force the issue, it’s a topic where it would actually be appropriate for Congress to do so. Rather than a case of messing around with local laws in a place they don’t live, it’d be a matter of legislators looking after their own safety.

“You’d be hard-pressed to think of a city where this is a more critical issue than Washington, D.C.,” said Verheyden-Hilliard, the civil rights lawyer. “What happens the next time we go on the Jan. 6 path, which we all know could happen? What happens if there’s this festering group within the MPD that haven’t been weeded out? It’s very dangerous.”

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