The resistance to acknowledging the extremism of groups like the Oath Keepers and CSPOA underscores the powerful need to root far-right extremists out of the ranks of the nation’s law enforcement agencies as a necessary first step in confronting the growth of radical-right violence in the nation after Jan. 6. The pushback is a powerful indicator of how deeply embedded these groups and their radical politics have become within those ranks.
From the outset, the Oath Keepers have represented a subtle but significant threat: namely, the infiltration of law enforcement and the military with conspiracist far-right ideologies, which has always posed the likelihood that extremist violence will be enabled both by police officers who permit it or enable it, and by the heightened competence of far-right terrorists who have received training in handling arms and materiel.
“It’s really problematic if you have members of law enforcement saying, for example, that they’re not going to comply with federal court orders because they think those federal court orders are unconstitutional,” Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor and author of Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group, told OPB.
Several of the Oregon officers contacted by OPB reporters hung up on them. One of them, a Salem police officer name Joseph Webber, appears to have joined the Oath Keepers shortly after a pro-gun rally in the city in 2018. Before terminating the conversation, he denied being a member.
Another one, Nicholas Codiga, is currently an officer with the Nyssa police who has an apparent fondness for posting right-wing memes mocking indigenous people. After Codiga hung up on the reporter, the Nyssa Police Department repeated the performance when the reporter identified himself. Nyssa City Manager Jim Maret told OPB that Codiga is transferring to a different law enforcement agency next month, but would not identify it.
In Riverside County, California, Sheriff Chad Bianco told reporters that he only joined in 2014, paying $40 for a yearlong Oath Keepers membership, which he then did not extend. “Like many other law enforcement officers and veterans who were members, I learned the group did not offer me anything and so I did not continue membership,” Bianco said.
However, Bianco adamantly defended the organization in an interview with LAist. He said that despite the arrests of numerous Oath Keepers in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, he did not consider them a threat to democracy. “Except for a few fringe people, that’s not really what they stand for,” he said. “They certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution.”
A group of local citizens has begun organizing to oust Bianco in the 2022 election with a focus on his ties to far-right extremism. “It’s up to us to sound the alarm bell, organize and put some money together,” Joy Silver, co-chair of an anti-Bianco political action committee, told The Daily Beast.
Bianco bristled: “If you love America, if you’re proud to be an American and you support the Constitution, you are labeled as an extremist,” he said. “People want to make a big deal out of something that is not. There is nothing wrong or sinister with me joining.”
While maintaining that “what happened at the Capitol was completely wrong,” the sheriff said it’s unfair to tar the Oath Keepers as supporting the insurrection “because one, two, three, 10, 15, 20 people of an entire organization do something bad.”
Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center of the Study of Hate and Extremism, told LAist that the Oath Keepers is “a Second Amendment insurrectionist group,” said. “It doesn’t get simpler than that.”
“Second Amendment insurrectionists believe they have a right to armed rebellion whenever they … believe the government is tyrannical,” Levin said. “For [Bianco] to be defending the organization today when he is in the position of enforcing the law is extremely problematic.”
“To not hear him denounce them only 10 months after the insurrection of the capital is shocking to me,” Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege, who called for Bianco’s resignation, told The Daily Beast.
Bianco has a history of embracing far-right politics, most recently including anti-vaccine/anti-masking activists during the COVID-19 pandemic. He issued a statement in September announcing his refusal to enforce any vaccine mandates for his employees. “I am certainly not anti-vaccine,” he said. “I am anti-vaccine for me.” Bianco said that part of his job as sheriff is to be the “last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.”
“The government has no ability and no authority to mandate your health choices,” he said.
The other far-right patriot organization to which law-enforcement officers have multiple ties, the CSPOA, seems to be inspiring a similar double-down response when individual officers are confronted about their ties. One of these, Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, told Politico recently that he “appreciate[s] those guys standing up for the rule of law, the Constitution and freedom.”
He also defended the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. “Just because somebody was there doesn’t necessarily mean they’re guilty,” he said, adding: “I guarantee you [the rioters] are very loving, Christian people. They just happen to support President Trump a lot.”
Lamb calls vaccine mandates “garbage” and spoke at a recent anti-vaccine rally in Phoenix, where he told supporters, “We’re going to find out what kind of patriots you are. We’re going to find out who is willing to die for freedom.” He also has spoken in support of the formation of private militias — “well within the Constitution,” he told a group of supporters in March.
On Jan. 6, Lamb appeared as a speaker at a pro-Trump rally in Phoenix protesting the election results. One rallygoer brought a guillotine. Lamb spoke to the crowd about “issues with the vote,” blaming state and federal governments. “I don’t know how loud we have to get before they start to listen to us and know that we will no longer tolerate them stripping our freedoms away,” he said.
All of these officers are revealing their own extremism in part because they don’t see “patriot” beliefs as extremist—even though such essential tenets as the view that sheriffs are the supreme law of the land with power superseding federal and state authorities, as well as the notion that the Second Amendment nullifies any and all gun regulation, are readily debunked nonsense whose only believers are right-wing extremists.
“Some people might have joined Oath Keepers with a minimal understanding of the group,” Sam Jackson said. “But if you had any real level of engagement with the group you would see their promotion of conspiracy theories, their calls to prepare for violence… Do we really want members of our law enforcement community to be absentmindedly joining civic organizations even if they … aren’t a pernicious extremist organization like the Oath Keepers? I would hope that the people who we are entrusting with firearms and arrest privileges have better discernment than that.”