By Jeff Gruenewald, William Parkin & Michael Suttmoeller, Special to CNN
Jeff Gruenewald, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, William Parkin, assistant professor at Seattle University, and Michael Suttmoeller, doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, are researchers with the Extremist Crime Database. The views expressed are their own.
The tragic deaths of St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff's deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche in Louisiana on August 16, and the injuries to their fellow officers, highlight the ongoing and underreported threat that domestic extremism poses to law enforcement officers in the United States.
According to news reports, the suspects in these murders have been tied to the “sovereign citizens,” a far-right, anti-government movement. Unfortunately, this is not the first homicide of this type in Louisiana. In 2007, two Bastrop police detectives were killed by a member of the white supremacist prison group Aryan Circle who was wanted by U.S. Marshalls on weapons charges and for questioning over a previous homicide case. That suspect was eventually killed in a shootout with police.
Officers Nielsen and Triche are merely the most recent in a long history of law enforcement officers killed or wounded in the line of duty by far-right extremists. Only two weeks before the shootings in Louisiana, an officer was shot multiple times by a white supremacist while responding to the deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where six people were murdered. Fortunately, the officer survived, but between 1990 and 2010, 46 on-duty law enforcement officers were killed in 30 incidents where at least one of the suspects was a far-rightist. In addition, during this timeframe, five corrections officers, four private security guards, one judge and one animal control officer were killed by far-right extremists.
Although not all of these incidents were ideologically motivated, the suspects’ extremist ideologies play a pivotal role in how they view and react to law enforcement. Anti-government extremists typically focus their ire against the state and federal governments, which they believe have no constitutional authority to police them. However, more than two-thirds of law enforcement officers killed were members of local law enforcement agencies, while less than a third were from state and federal agencies. Officers are killed in ambush-style attacks by far-right extremists 30 percent of the time such groups choose to attack, as appears to be the case in the most recent Louisiana attack. Although the full facts of this incident are yet to come out, it appears that law enforcement officials were also aware of at least one of the suspect’s extremist views.
Despite all this, it’s difficult for law enforcement agencies to keep track of extremists who pose a threat. Over the last 20 years, less than 20 percent of far-right extremist suspects were part of formal hate groups. Instead, they usually carried out their violence alone or with others, but without clear group boundaries.
So what do we know about the types of people likely to be involved in such crimes – and are there any clues we can look for? The reality is that there is no single profile, but notable patterns have been uncovered in the nature of law enforcement murders committed by far-right extremists.
A number of law enforcement officers have been killed while responding to calls for service. In 2009, in Pittsburgh, three officers were shot by an anti-government extremist while responding to a domestic disturbance call at his residence. In Michigan in 1998, a law enforcement officer was called to the home of a known anti-government conspiracy theorist that had previous interactions with the local police and was known to carry a gun. After an attempt to reason with the suspect, gunfire was exchanged and the officer was fatally wounded on the man’s front porch. In Tennessee in 2006, two brothers, who were also anti-government extremists, shot and killed a police officer and his acquaintance as they responded to a call at their home. The brothers were known to carry weapons and had long histories of feuding with local authorities.
None of these particular far-rightists had serious criminal histories. In 1993, an Alabama police officer was summoned to check on the welfare of a child who was in a vehicle parked at a supermarket. Also in the car was an anti-government, common-law couple who were members of the Patriot Movement. Fugitives from the law, the couple opened fire in the parking lot, fatally wounding the officer. Two years later, while on a crime spree, another couple with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang killed a California police officer who noticed their vehicle in a parking lot outside of a restaurant.
Routine traffic stops can also become extremely dangerous situations for law enforcement officers – of all attacks on officers by far-right extremists, 16 percent came during traffic stops. In one 1997 case, a New Hampshire man in his late sixties, with a history of threatening local officials, shot and killed a police officer during a traffic stop. He then led other officers on a chase that crossed two states and resulted in additional deaths, including his own. Five years later, a 61-year-old Ohioan claiming to be the leader of a sovereign citizens group led police on a high speed pursuit that ended in a shootout where he and a police officer were killed. Police found stockpiles of weapons during follow up investigations of both incidents.
But while far-right attacks on law enforcement may be most common, since 1990 law enforcement officers have also come under attack by other ideological extremists. Sixty law enforcement officers were murdered by al-Qaeda in New York City during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Other supporters of al-Qaeda have killed military personnel inside the U.S. and in 2002 a police officer was killed in California by a left-wing self-proclaimed anarchist. In another attack just before the shootings in Louisiana, a security guard was shot and wounded inside the offices of the Family Research Council, a conservative organization, in what was allegedly an act of left-wing ideologically motivated violence.
The murders in St. John the Baptist Parish serve as a reminder of the significant threat posed by far-rightists, al-Qaeda supporters and other domestic extremists in the United States, specifically to law enforcement officers. While it’s clear that no two law enforcement murders are the same, researchers, advocacy groups, and law enforcement should continue to work together to identify domestic extremist offending patterns and to profile these crimes in ways that aid in the identification, investigation, and prosecution of those who turn to violence to achieve both ideological and criminal goals.
The Extremist Crime Database is funded through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. The numbers and incidents referenced were compiled by the ECDB, which was created and is directed by Professors Joshua D. Freilich (John Jay College, CUNY) and Steven M. Chermak (Michigan State University).