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Curbing Political Threats by Law Enforcement in the US

Authorities Should Ensure Police Protect All People

Phoenix Police Department vehicles block off a street in Phoenix, Arizona, May 30, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Recent politically motivated threats and calls for violence by local law enforcement officers in the United States underscore the need for government authorities to ensure police equally protect all members of the public, including at protests in the wake of the November 3 elections.

On November 6, an Arkansas police chief with reported ties to an anti-government militia called for recruits to “fight [their] way” into the US Congress to “arrest” Democratic lawmakers, and “shoot and kill” Democrats and Black Lives Matter and Antifa members to stop a “coup” against President Trump.

Two days earlier in Alabama, a police captain, also on social media, wrote that people who voted for President-elect Joe Biden should get “a bullet in their head for treason.”

In October, an on-duty police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, allegedly threatened to seriously harm the city’s Democratic mayor, Kate Gallego.

The police departments in each of these cases have responded promptly. The Arkansas police chief and Alabama police captain resigned after their supervisors questioned them about their postings. In Arizona, the Phoenix police department sent the accused officer home pending criminal and internal investigations.

Authorities need to ensure meaningful accountability, including through thorough disciplinary measures and, as appropriate, criminal investigations in these cases. They should also thoroughly and impartially investigate any other cases involving law enforcement officers who advocate violence, discrimination, or hostility toward any individual or group; participation in intimidation and violence; or collusion with or tolerance of criminal activity by extremists. Generally, in the tiny percentage of cases in which officers are known to have links to extreme-right armed groups, the authorities’ responses have been insufficient, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

With protests against Biden’s presidential victory scheduled for this weekend and beyond including by far-right groups, and counter-protests possible, it’s essential that law enforcement officials uphold their international and domestic legal obligations to protect all members of the public from harm, without bias, while upholding the right of all to peacefully protest. Authorities at all levels in the US should promptly investigate and appropriately hold them to account when they do not.

Failure to take these steps could embolden future abuses and further erode public trust in the rule of law and its enforcers.

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