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 Officer Safety and Extremists: An Overview for Law Enforcement Officers
Introduction
Why Are Extremists a Safety Concern?
Common Officer Safety Situations Involving Extremists
Extremist Identifiers
Defusing and Safety Techniques
Conclusion
Common Officer Safety Situations Involving Extremists

Any time law enforcement offices encounter people with extreme ideologies, safety issues potentially arise. However, for a variety of reasons, certain circumstances pose a heightened threat of violent confrontation. Some situations, for instance, are particularly stressful for extremists, increasing the chances that they may lash out or overreact.

Six types of situations probably pose the most danger to law enforcement officers from members of anti-government or hate groups. These include:

  • Traffic Stops
  • Residence Visits
  • Confrontations/Standoffs
  • Rallies/Marches
  • Incident Responses
  • Revenge/Retaliations

Traffic Stops

Traffic stops are potentially some of the most dangerous situations that law enforcement officers can face when dealing with extremists. Numerous officers have been killed, wounded, shot at, or attacked during traffic stop incidents involving extremists during the past twenty years.

Some of these confrontations have been well-publicized. In 1997, television audiences across the country watched a police car video of a shootout in Ohio between two white supremacists, Cheyne and Chevie Kehoe, and local police officers. Yet some of the more incredible incidents have received remarkably little publicity. In one recent case in March 2000, three anti-government extremists (Lloyd Burrus, his son Jeff Burrus, and Cheryl Kate Maarteuse) were stopped for speeding by a Nevada highway patrol officer about sixty miles north of Las Vegas. The officer spotted a shotgun in the vehicle and radioed for backup. While he waited, the extremists sped off. During the ensuing chase, they shot at police vehicles from both Nevada and California, then turned off-road, where their BMW became stuck. Burrus and his accomplices abandoned the vehicle but took their weapons and ammunition, which they used to shoot down a California Highway Patrol helicopter that had arrived on scene. Eventually, after a twelve hour standoff involving over a hundred law enforcement officers, they gave themselves up.

Traffic stops are particularly dangerous for several reasons.

  • The law enforcement officer is isolated. This is especially true for rural areas, where backup may be a half hour or more away. Law enforcement officers involved in a traffic stop may be outnumbered by the extremists involved. Some extremist groups have even adopted the habit of riding in two cars, so that law enforcement officers stopping the first car may be unaware of the following one.


  • The extremist is in a heightened state of suspicion/anger. An officer may pull a car over for a very routine violation such as a broken taillight or missing license plate tags. For the extremist in the car, however, it is a much more tense situation. That person may view the incident as the "last straw," the last time he or she will accept government "interference" in his or her constitutional rights. This nervousness or anger will, of course, be increased if the extremist has illegal items in the vehicle (such as weapons or explosives) or has been engaging in illegal activity. Thus a situation that may appear routine to the officer is highly charged for the extremist.


  • The extremist may be extremely well-armed. Law enforcement officers involved in traffic stops with extremists may find themselves significantly outgunned. It is not at all uncommon for extremists to have multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition in their vehicles. To give just one example, in early 1996 a militia and "sovereign citizen" activist named Larry Martz assaulted an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper during a traffic stop. In his vehicle Martz carried a pistol, two assault rifles, a shotgun, other weapons, and more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition. This is not unusual.

Residence Visits.

Another potentially very dangerous situation involving extremists is the residence visit. Police officers may have to visit the homes of extremists for a variety of reasons, but they are unlikely to find a welcome mat.

Residence visits are potentially dangerous for numerous reasons.

  • The officer is on the "home turf" of the extremist. Especially if the officer is at the home merely for a routine visit, he or she may have little or no knowledge of the layout of the property or the interior of the home. The extremist, on the other hand, will have extensive knowledge, and in remarkable cases, may have made extensive preparations. In rural areas, homes are often located so that they cannot be observed from roads or other vantage points. Observation posts, gun slots, and even escape tunnels have all been reported.


  • The extremist may call out for reinforcements. While a law enforcement officer may be at the door, an extremist may be at the telephone, unbeknownst to the officer, calling for his or her own backup. Thus reinforcements for the extremist may arrive, perhaps angry or armed. What started off as a routine visit may end up as a standoff or confrontation.


  • The home may be armed/fortified. Some extremists turn their homes into virtual fortresses. The grounds around the residence are cleared in order to have unimpeded fields of fire. Windows are sometimes boarded up and walls and doors reinforced. Officers have discovered houses where extremists had placed loaded firearms in every room for easy and immediate access to weaponry. Some extremists also design elaborate booby traps.

Confrontations/Standoffs

Extremist standoffs occur when extremists who are suspects or fugitives refuse to give themselves up from a barricaded situation. The Montana Freeman standoff in 1996, in which about two dozen extremists wanted on numerous federal and state charges held off authorities for 81 days in remote eastern Montana, is a good example of an extremist standoff.

Extremist confrontations occur when extremists unexpectedly show up at a scene involving law enforcement. The scene could in fact be an extremist standoff, or it could be something else entirely, such as a foreclosure or eviction.

In both of these situations, law enforcement officers will be faced with armed extremists, either on the "inside" (e.g., in a house surrounded by police), the "outside" (e.g., protesting or interfering with a standoff), or both.

Standoff and confrontation situations are particularly difficult situations. They may be protracted and complex, and are likely to attract media attention.

Several factors make them particularly risky for law enforcement officers.

Extremists do not always act with restraint. Some standoffs have been essentially peaceful operations, resolved without violence or harm, but this has not always been the case. In 1988, for instance, a group of extremists belonging to a fringe Mormon sect bombed a Latter Day Saint religious center in Marion, Utah, creating a standoff once authorities traced the bombing back to the group. During the standoff, members of the group repeatedly shot at law enforcement, in part because they believed they were engaged in an apocalyptic situation in which their dead leader, John Singer, would rise from the grave to help them. Members of the group killed one law enforcement officer when authorities tried to end the standoff.

The "Ruby Ridge" Factor. The well-known standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993 significantly agitated and galvanized the extreme right-wing in the United States. There has not, however, been any event of similar magnitude since then. Some extremists have expressed a desire for another such event to re-energize the extreme right. Consequently, there is a danger during any standoff or confrontation, perhaps even those not involving extremists, that one or more extremists on the outside might attempt to precipitate "another Ruby Ridge."

The Dangers of Loose Cannons. Any sort of standoff or confrontation in which two armed parties confront each other poses the risk that even one unstable or uncertain individual might precipitate violence. For instance, in a related sort of incident, one angry extremist in 1998 took shots at a police command post in western North Carolina that was overseeing the manhunt for fugitive Eric Rudolph. The very nature of standoffs is that they are high tension situations; not only do they run the risk of a person intentionally or unintentionally committing an act of violence, but any such act would pose escalation risks as well.

A good example of the risks posed to law enforcement officers by even minor standoff situations can be found in the case of Mary Schipke. In November 1998, Child Protective Service employees from Pima County, Arizona, attempted to visit Schipke’s trailer home after receiving some strange mail from her. Schipke, an adherent of an anti-CPS movement, refused to let them enter. Several days later they returned to try again, this time with sheriff’s deputies to assist them.

The deputies attempted to persuade Schipke to let them enter her residence, but she met them with a gun and forced them to back off, thus setting up a standoff situation. The Sheriff’s Department set up a nearby command center to handle the event, while Schipke in the meantime got on the phone to various local militia and extremist groups. While SWAT negotiators tried to talk to Schipke, their offices were being bombarded with phone calls from extremists, many of them threatening. Meanwhile, other extremists began showing up at the scene of the standoff, some circling the area in vehicles, others hanging around the command center. Some verbally threatened police officers and made references to Ruby Ridge.

Luckily, the next day SWAT officers persuaded Schipke to let two officers into the trailer to talk to her. During the conversation, the officers saw an opportunity when they noticed her gun was holstered, and successfully seized her, thus ending the standoff with no injury. However, the chance that some sort of serious tragedy might occur, whether during the initial confrontation when Schipke brandished a gun at officers, or during the ensuing standoff when various extremists attempted to intimidate law enforcement, was very real.

Rallies/Marches

Certain types of extremist groups specialize in holding rallies or marches. Aryan Nations and various Ku Klux Klan groups have been among the most visible in recent years. Such rallies and marches often receive widespread publicity.

Groups like the Klan generally hold rallies and marches for three main reasons:

  • To generate free publicity
  • To cause fear/upset in minority populations
  • To generate recruits and support

Given these goals, only one of which involves the possibility of overt acts of intimidation or violence, marchers usually do not plan or intend acts of violence. Rather, they generally hope for violence or overreaction on the part of community members or counterdemonstrators. This often makes them look like martyrs or valiant defenders to potential sympathizers. Thus one of the major implicit goals of such rallies and marches is to provoke attacks rather than engage in an attack.

Hate groups can succeed in such tactics because there have evolved over the years a number of groups that specialize in openly confronting Klan and other such marches and rallies. Some of these groups themselves are extremist, either left-wing or otherwise (such as the Jewish Defense League); some of them explicitly condone violence against extremists or their sympathizers. Although conventional wisdom strongly suggests that such confrontations are counterproductive and actually may help the hate groups in question, counterdemonstrators disagree strongly and will usually refuse requests to stay away from a rally or march.

Many members of counterdemonstrating groups get a visceral pleasure out of confronting hate groups; some show up prepared to fight. Police routinely have to confiscate weapons from counterdemonstrators; arrests for assault or similar crimes are not infrequent. As a result, law enforcement officers are often more likely to face risk of violence or injury from counterdemonstrators rather than from members of the marching or rallying hate groups themselves.

A brief profile of one group that specializes in counterdemonstrations may illustrate the attitudes involved. The Anti-Racist Action Network is a large, loosely-organized group with chapters in a number of cities in the United States and Canada. ARA chapters are usually far left-wing; many members are anarchists; some are non-racist skinheads. Animal rights activists and "straight edgers" are also common. The newsletter of the de facto "headquarters" chapter, in Columbus, Ohio, is titled Mob Action, which gives some indication of their tactics. ARA members are often virulently anti-law enforcement as well as anti-racist. From the group’s main Web site, one can purchase bumper stickers stating sentiments such as "Cops are Assholes" and "I [image of handgun] Cops."

In addition to situations involving counterdemonstrators, law enforcement officers also face safety risks from potential riot situations if especially large crowds show up at hate group rallies, particularly if such rallies are deliberately held in provocative environments such as minority neighborhoods or the scene of some past racial or other similarly charged incident.

One final danger that law enforcement officers must consider is the possibility of diametrically opposed, armed extremist groups confronting each other during a rally or march. The potential for violence is illustrated by an infamous and still controversial incident in November 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Following a series of previous incidents earlier in the year, a group of people from the Communist Workers Party organized an anti-Klan rally at a black housing project. Klansmen and Neo-Nazis showed up and the confrontation eventually became violent. However, the Nazis were better armed, as weapons had been prohibited for the ralliers. Five anti-Klan demonstrators were killed, while seven others were wounded; one Klansman was wounded. More recently, in 1998, armed members of the New Black Panther Party, a racist and anti-Semitic black separatist group, and members of a Ku Klux Klan group confronted each other in Jasper, Texas, following the highly-publicized incident in which three white supremacists murdered James Byrd, Jr., by dragging him to death. Panther Party members repeatedly tried to assault Klan members, who had to be protected by the police. Unless law enforcement officers successfully handle such extreme situations, they face the possibility of finding themselves in a dangerous confrontation.

Incident Responses

Law enforcement officers sometimes face dangers not only in ongoing situations such as standoffs, but also when responding to incidents such as bombings that have already occurred.

Much of the risk is due to increased sophistication on the part of some extremists. Secondary explosive devices are a good example of such sophistication. Where, previously, an angry Klansman or neo-Nazi might only have bombed a black church, a synagogue, an abortion clinic or a gay bar, some now understand that they can strike at other foes by placing a second bomb on the scene, designed to detonate after emergency crews and police have arrived at the scene. In this way, extremists strike not only at their primary target, but at police as well, whom they also hate. Eric Rudolph is alleged to have done this several times, but such secondary devices have been used for decades. Few bombings involve secondary devices, but they are more likely in situations involving extremist criminals because extremists may dislike law enforcement as much as their primary target.

Revenge/Retaliation

Unlike most criminals, extremist criminals are fairly likely to attempt to retaliate against law enforcement officers who arrest, investigate, or otherwise interfere with them. Moreover, because extremists are at the very least members of a movement and quite possibly members of a particular group or organization, law enforcement officers who encounter them sometimes face the possibility that friends or supporters of extremists may attempt some sort of revenge or retaliation.

Because officers may not actually realize they have been dealing with an extremist, they may not be alert to the possibility of retaliation attempts. One early clue is a "phone wave." Often, when an extremist is arrested, supporters of that extremist will use the Internet and shortwave radio to publicize the arrest and to encourage sympathizers to bombard the agency, the courts, and any other related body or individual with waves of phone calls. Sometimes the tactic is designed merely to put pressure on a law enforcement agency or judge; occasionally people are urged to create "phone waves" in order to completely swamp an agency’s phone system and shut it down. Because ordinary criminals rarely have support networks that can generate these sorts of tactics, phone waves are an important indication that the law enforcement agency is dealing with an extremist and should take appropriate precautions.

Retaliation is in fact quite common among right-wing extremists, especially adherents of anti-government groups. Retaliation most often takes forms that are harassing rather than violent, but unfortunately this is not always the case.

Paper Terrorism. Paper terrorism is a tactic perfected by the "sovereign citizen" movement. It involves the use of bogus legal documents and filings, as well as the misuse of legitimate legal documents and filings, in order to harass and intimidate law enforcement officers, public officials, and sometimes private citizens. The most common of these include filing bogus liens against the property of law enforcement officers, filing frivolous lawsuits against them, filing bogus IRS 1099 and IRS 8300 forms in the hopes of raising IRS suspicions about officers, and issuing bogus arrest warrants from "common law courts" or similar bodies.

Intimidation. Extremists engage in a wide variety of intimidation tactics that range from following officers around to actually posing as "civil rights investigators" in order to interrogate the spouse or family members of the officer in question. Law enforcement officers should understand that not only they but also their family members may be potential targets.

Violence. Extremists have on occasion violently retaliated against law enforcement officers, most notably in the shooting of a Missouri State Highway Patrol Officer.

Sometimes extremists may also retaliate generally in response to an incident rather than against the particular officers involved in an incident. Thus an extremist in North Carolina angry about an arrest of another extremist in Texas may decide to retaliate against police locally rather than in Texas. In the past, IRS agents and forest rangers, among others, have been attacked simply because they were convenient targets, rather than because they were the specific agents or rangers who had previously angered the perpetrators.

Previous: Why Are Extremists a Safety Concern? Next: Extremist Identifiers
Officer Safety Bulletins
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