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

Law enforcement officers have many safety concerns, ranging from domestic disputes to belligerent drunk drivers, and they will likely face those situations far more often than situations involving extremists, who by their nature are a minority of the population.

Nevertheless, officers need to be alert to possible encounters with extremists and the safety issues involved. Even if members of hate groups are less common than spouse abusers, officers will eventually encounter them. Generally speaking, extremist criminals pose all the same risks to officer safety as other criminals. However, because of their beliefs, extremist criminals also pose additional risks and concerns.

Three particular factors underscore the importance of officer safety when dealing with extremists.

  • First, law enforcement officers are often the people most likely to confront extremists who have committed criminal acts.
  • Second, criminals motivated by extremism very often act in distinctly different ways than criminals motivated by traditional motives such as greed or anger.
  • Third, for a variety of reasons, extremist criminals may often specifically target law enforcement officers.

The First Line of Defense

One of the primary reasons that law enforcement officers should be concerned about safety when dealing with extremists is very simple: it is the "street cop" who is most likely to encounter an extremist who has committed a crime or act of terrorism. Elite forces like the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team will never be the first to confront an extremist criminal; they will always arrive on the scene after an encounter has already taken place. In all likelihood, the officer encountering an extremist criminal or fugitive will be a neighborhood patrol officer or a deputy sheriff.

The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, provides a good example. Timothy McVeigh, the nation’s most notorious domestic terrorist—responsible for 168 deaths and hundreds of casualties—was not apprehended by members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force. He was arrested at a routine traffic stop by Charles J. Hanger, a veteran trooper of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

McVeigh was armed, but chose not to offer resistance to Hanger. Not all officers have been so lucky. On the same day that Hanger arrested McVeigh in Oklahoma, an execution took place in neighboring Arkansas. The man executed was Richard Wayne Snell, a virulent white supremacist on death row for acts he had committed a decade earlier: the June 1984 murder of Arkansas State Police Trooper Louis Bryant and the November 1983 murder of William Stump, a pawn shop owner he mistakenly thought was Jewish.

In addition to being most likely to be first on the scene at an event or encounter, law enforcement officers are also most likely to discover the beginning or initial activities of new extremist groups. Local police with limited resources may have to cope for extended periods of time with large, highly motivated and well-organized groups.

The highly-publicized 81-day Montana Freemen standoff in Garfield County, Montana, in 1996 is a good example. For several years before hundreds of federal and state agents descended on the town of Jordan, the task of combating the Montana Freemen fell to a young sheriff, Charles Phipps, and his single deputy, with the assistance and guidance of county attorney Nick Murnion. The Freemen subjected Phipps to harassing liens and legal filings, a variety of threats, and even put out a million-dollar bounty on Phipps’ head. Phipps asked one of the Freemen if he could turn himself in and get the reward; the Freeman replied that he could but wouldn’t live to enjoy it, because Phipps would be tried, convicted, and hung.

Extremist Criminals vs. "Typical" Criminals

Just as no two individuals are exactly alike; so no two criminals are exactly alike. Nevertheless, criminals who share the same motivations and desires often respond or react in similar ways, giving police officers valuable tools to work with when investigating crimes or making arrests.

However, criminals primarily motivated by ideology rather than greed or anger may act or respond quite differently than most of the criminals a police officer encounters. There is no firm line distinguishing an extremist criminal from a "typical" criminal; in some cases, their actions may be indistinguishable. However, the differences manifest themselves often enough to merit attention and concern, especially since these variations may mean the difference between life and death in certain situations.

One of the most striking ways extremist criminal behavior may be different from more common criminal behavior is that extremist criminals are often focused rather than opportunistic, and committed rather than ambivalent. For example, a "typical" criminal may look for an opportunity to assault someone who looks well-off and vulnerable, or may look for an open window in order to commit a robbery. The identity of the victim doesn’t really matter; one person is as good as another. Similarly, if a house is locked, perhaps the next one will not be. An extremist criminal, on the other hand, may have a very particular focus and may plan a particular criminal act in great detail. He or she may labor to surmount obstacles, rather than let an obstacle deter them from committing the particular act they envisioned. Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, went to great lengths to build elaborate letter bombs targeting identified individuals.

Another way in which extremist criminals may differ strikingly from most other criminals is that they are often cause-oriented rather than self-oriented. In extreme cases, this cause-orientation may be so strong that the extremist embarks upon a suicide mission of some sort; self-preservation is no longer a factor. The shooting spree of World Church of the Creator member Benjamin Smith in the summer of 1999 offers a telling example. Smith went on a three day shooting rampage, targeting Jews, African Americans, and Asian Americans. He killed two people and wounded nine more before killing himself as police closed in. While few extremists approach Smith in their willingness to sacrifice their lives to their "cause," many more will exhibit less extreme versions of the same sentiments, often including a reluctance to inform on others, even if it will mean more severe consequences for them.

Extremist criminals are also much more likely to be attack-oriented than defense-oriented. When a planned criminal act goes wrong, a typical criminal is much more likely to choose "flight" over "fight." The same cannot necessarily be said for extremist criminals, for some of whom a battle with law enforcement may be practically as desirable as the planned act itself. The so-called "Phineas Priests" who in 1996 robbed a Spokane, Washington, bank twice and attempted the robbery of a bank in Portland, Oregon, provide a good example. Four members of the group were eventually convicted (Charles Barbee, Robert Berry, Verne Jay Merrell, and Brian Ratigan). In each of the successful bank robberies, the extremists rigged incendiary devices to their abandoned getaway vehicles in order to harm law enforcement officers. In fact, after one robbery, they first backed their getaway van onto the on-ramp of a parking garage, waiting to ambush law enforcement officers. Luckily, no officer followed them to the garage.

People motivated by extreme ideologies are as varied as any other group of people. Extremists who commit criminal acts, like typical criminals, may be lazy, careless, stupid, or cowardly. Yet because their ideology motivates them differently than more common motives such as greed or anger may motivate typical criminals, police officers cannot afford to assume that extremist criminals they encounter are going to act or react in familiar ways.

Extremists Targeting Law Enforcement

One of the most important reasons law enforcement officers should take safety precautions when dealing with extremist criminals is that, for a variety of reasons, extremists will often target law enforcement officers with violence. Because extremist criminals are criminals, they may react to law enforcement in all of the ways a typical criminal might. Because they are ideologically motivated, some typical criminal motivations may be enhanced by their ideology. Moreover, unlike typical criminals, extremist criminals may also lash out against law enforcement officers for reasons specifically related to their ideology.

Non-Ideological Motivations

Fear of Getting Caught. Few criminals desire to be caught or arrested by police. Except for those few who choose "suicide by cop," people who break the law generally want to escape the consequences of doing so. This is not always true for extremists. No police officer is likely to encounter a suicide house burglar, but they might one day run into a terrorist suicide bomber. Other extremists, however, may commit a crime then give themselves up, hoping that their trial and incarceration will further enhance the "message" they wanted to send.

However, even among extremists, such motivations are the exception. Most extremist criminals do not wish to get killed or caught, even if for no other reason than they may wish to strike again. As a result, extremist criminals often become extremist fugitives. Some hide remarkably well, often sheltered from authorities by sympathetic allies. Some of the left-wing extremists who committed bombings and other serious crimes in the 1970s are still fugitives today. More recently, the career of suspected bomber Eric Rudolph, wanted in connection with bombings of abortion clinics, gay bars, and the 1996 Olympics, demonstrates how well extremists may be able to elude authorities.

Some extremist criminals may choose violent means to help them escape pursuit. For example, in the spring of 1998, three anti-government extremists (Robert Mason, Alan Pilon, and Jason McVean) stole a water truck in southwestern Colorado near the Four Corners area (their motivations are still obscure). Officer Dale Claxton of the Cortez, Colorado, police department spotted the stolen truck and began following it. The truck pulled over and the occupants leapt out, spraying Claxton’s patrol car with automatic weapons fire, killing him almost immediately. After murdering Claxton they continued their flight, shooting up various law enforcement vehicles that tried to stop them—wounding two officers in the process—before disappearing into the desert. Since the shooting, two of the fugitives have been discovered—dead—while the fate of the third remains a mystery.

Revenge or Retaliation. Any criminal may harbor a grudge against a law enforcement officer who arrests, investigates, evicts, or in some other way irritates him or her. Extremist criminals, most of whom have ideological reasons to hate or fear the government as well, are even more likely to attempt some act of retaliation or revenge.

Moreover, because extremist criminals are generally part of a movement and perhaps belong to a particular group, they may have followers or associates willing to strike back for them when they themselves are imprisoned (or even dead). In this way, they may be similar to some organized crime groups or gangs. The retaliation may even come years after the event which spurred it. In 2001, nine years after the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, white supremacists and anti-government extremists still direct so much anger at Lon Horiuchi, an FBI sniper involved in the standoff, that the agent will probably have to live in conditions of extreme security for the rest of his life.

Sometimes, however, the officers who are targeted have little warning. The case of Missouri State Highway Patrol officer Bobbie Harper is a good example. In June 1994, Harper was one of several officers involved in the arrest of a white supremacist named Robert Joos (for resisting arrest and carrying a concealed weapon) following a traffic stop in Missouri. Several months later, an associate of Joos, Timothy Coombs, allegedly shot Harper from outside the trooper’s house while Harper was in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator. Harper later died of complications partially related to the shooting. Coombs remains at large.

Spontaneous Anger. Extremist criminals are often very angry; in fact, it is their anger—against the government, people who are different from them, creditors, spouses or relatives—which may attract them to extreme ideologies in the first place. These ideologies exacerbate their anger, while providing a rationale for its existence and targets for its expression. Thus while almost any criminal, from a spouse abuser to a drunk driver to a drug dealer, may react violently out of spontaneous anger, extremist criminals are often more likely to do so.

One example of such anger involved Kim Lee Bonsteel, a "sovereign citizen" from North Carolina. In 1994, Bonsteel was pulled over at a traffic stop, but refused to produce a driver’s license or to get out of his truck. When a police officer broke the window of his truck to get in, Bonsteel reacted by driving away, leading several law enforcement officers on a chase through three counties that destroyed several patrol cars, injured three officers, and caused a sheriff’s deputy to die of a heart attack. Bonsteel was sent to prison, where he described himself as a political prisoner of the New World Order, until his release in early 2001.

Ideological Reasons

Anti-Government/Authority Ideology. Most far right-wing extremists (and many left-wing extremists as well), whether they are members of the militia or "sovereign citizen" movements or are members of white supremacist groups, adhere to an extremely anti-government ideology. Some believe that the government is completely illegitimate. Others would like to overthrow existing authority and establish a whites-only or "Aryan" nation.

Unfortunately, law enforcement officers are highly visible symbols of government and as a result frequently become the target of extremist anger. Groups as different as Earth First! on the left and the Posse Comitatus on the right have used similar language over the years to incite resentment among followers against law enforcement agencies and officers. In the 1980s, former Ku Klux Klan leader and Aryan Nations "ambassador" Louis Beam promoted a theory of "leaderless resistance" that remains very popular today. In an essay explaining his theory, Beam devised a "point system" for would-be white assassins. Killing an FBI agent or an IRS agent, for instance, was valued at a tenth of a point. The goal, he said, was to amass a whole point, which qualified the assassin as an "Aryan Warrior." The implication was clear: anybody who wanted to become a true Aryan warrior should consider targeting law enforcement officers.

New World Order/Jewish/Other Conspiracies. Members of many fringe movements, whether right-wing or left-wing, are susceptible to belief in one or more conspiracy theories. Many such theories describe shadowy, behind-the-scenes figures secretly manipulating and ruling the entire world.

The most common conspiracy theory among anti-government movements such as the militia and "sovereign citizen" movements is the New World Order conspiracy, which involves an imminent takeover of the U.S. by the United Nations in order to establish a socialist, authoritarian, one-world government. White supremacists, who tend to be extremely anti-Semitic, often believe that Jews conspire to take over the world. Many white supremacists refer to the U.S. government as ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government) or JOG (Jewish Occupied Government). Other popular conspiracy theories are anti-Catholic, placing the Vatican at the heart of the conspiracy, or antimasonic, targeting Freemasonry. Many extremists mix and match among these differing theories.

The relevance of these theories to law enforcement is that many extremists believe that law enforcement officers (especially federal agents) are no more than tools, witting or unwitting, of these various conspiracies.

Hatred/Hostility towards Minority Law Enforcement Officers. Members of hate groups or anti-government groups are likely to view most law enforcement officers with hostility or suspicion, but minority law enforcement officers are especially likely to be hated. Louis Bryant, the Arkansas police officer murdered by Richard Wayne Snell, was African American; this was probably not a coincidence.

In their writings in print and on the Internet, members of white supremacist groups have frequently and openly complained about being pulled over by or in other ways encountering "subhumans" such as Latino or African American law enforcement officers.

Government Cannot Interfere with Travel/Home. Many extremists adhere to ideologies so anti-government in nature that they believe that the government has virtually no legitimate authority over them at all. They insist that they have "constitutional" or "God-given" rights to do virtually anything without any interference from the government. When the government does try to interfere, anti-government extremists can become extraordinarily hostile.

Traffic stops are one of the most common situations in which these sorts of feeling arise. Many members of the "sovereign citizen" and militia movements believe that they have a legal or biblical right to travel completely unregulated by the government. In practice, this can include driving without a license, license plates, tags, registration, or insurance. Many believe too that they cannot be stopped by police for traffic infractions such as speeding or even driving while intoxicated, as long as no one has been injured. Some believe that they must follow traffic laws if driving a commercial vehicle, but not if they are driving a "private" vehicle. Others may simply claim that the Bible gives them a right to travel unhindered. Such people can become extraordinarily confrontational when pulled over for a traffic stop.

A similar source of anger that may cause extremists to lash out at law enforcement officers involves children. Many members of hate groups and anti-government groups argue that the government has no right to interfere in any way with the family. In the past, many conflicts arose when members of such groups tried to take their children out of the school systems in violation of state laws. Today, home schooling is much more widely permitted, thus reducing chances of conflict over this issue. However, extremists may still respond with anger when confronted with court orders involving the custody of children or with conflicts with child protective services agencies. Law enforcement officers attempting to enforce court orders or accompanying child protective services personnel may sometimes be at risk when visiting the homes of such people.

Government Has No Authority. Some extremists go so far as to claim that no government has any authority over them whatsoever. Many will claim that they will follow only "God’s laws," not "man’s laws." Some may even call themselves "Ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven" and claim diplomatic immunity. Not surprisingly, people who acknowledge no governmental authority over them at all have the potential to react violently when a representative of such a government attempts to assert authority over them in some way.

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Officer Safety Bulletins
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•  Traffic Stops Involving Extremists
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