USA TODAY International Edition
Since its founding in 2009, the Oath Keepers has traded in warped interpretations of the U. S. Constitution. The group, part of what extremism experts call the militia movement, has recruited current and former members of law enforcement and the military.
Its members declare they will not enforce any government order they believe to be illegal, such as disarming Americans. The group has ties to white supremacists.
Members of the Oath Keepers have engaged in high- profile armed standoffs against the federal government. Other members face conspiracy charges in the insurrection at the U. S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which injured about 140 police officers. One died a day later after suffering two strokes.
Law enforcement trainers have a broader reach than patrol officers or even supervisors, said Val Van Brocklin, a national police trainer. Trainers shape rookies’ minds and can imprint their view of police culture and tactics onto their students, she said.
Although tactical trainers may be less likely to talk about their personal views if they aren’t teaching about laws or the First Amendment, she said, “I don’t think anyone can go through a training of mine and not recognize I’m a feminist.”
Instructors in many states have the leeway to improvise, peppering in commentary and anecdotes.
“It’s concerning that you have that mentality among the elite of the police,” Johnson said. Belief in the Oath Keepers’ ideology can lead to a “training blind spot” for their students, he said, in which trainers are less likely to teach that armed white people can be threats.
Pittsburgh police Lt. Philip Mercurio described himself as a firearms instructor on the Oath Keepers sign- up form, writing that he “will spread the word to my students.” He did not respond to requests for comment.
Thursday, after learning about Mercurio’s Oath Keepers tie, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police put him on administrative leave pending a city investigation, spokesperson Cara Cruz said.
Daniel Blackford, a former Secret Service agent and investigator who protected Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, wrote on the form that he had been an instructor for more than 10 years, teaching tactics, firearms and driving.
Blackford told USA TODAY he signed up while working at the Postal Service’s inspector general’s office, where he conducted training on firearms. An early member of the tea party, he said he joined the Oath Keepers early because of the group’s oath to support and defend the Constitution. Eventually, he said, the group grew too radical, and he started marking its emails as junk.
“I’ve sent them to my spam folder for so long, I don’t know if they’re still around,” said Blackford, director of the police academy at the College of the Mainland near Galveston, Texas.
Experts said that although the group has evolved, it has always been extremist and always posed a conflict of interest for law enforcement officers, who take their own oaths.
Of the 65 people on the Oath Keepers list who claimed to be law enforcement trainers, USA TODAY confirmed 21 by speaking to them or their employers or reviewing records. Most did not respond to calls, emails or text messages. Some hung up. One sent a text message saying, “Lose this number.”
Scott McDaniel, 42, of Lexington, Kentucky, said joining the Oath Keepers about a decade ago was initially a positive experience. He said he could get behind the group’s message, like when when he joined the Three Percenters, an unauthorized militia named for the discredited claim that only 3% of Americans took up arms against the British.
Then, “things started getting really hairy,” and he left after a year or so.
“I don’t trust the government after being in the military and then working for the government for so long,” said McDaniel, a former U. S. Marine who is a federal corrections officer.
McDaniel said he has trained law enforcement since 2008 but never talks about his views with trainees except perhaps over a couple of beers afterward. He said he never thought about a possible battle for allegiance between the oath he swore as an Oath Keeper and the one for law enforcement. “As law enforcement, I never really even looked at the oath I took,” McDaniel said. “You kind of just do it. You never really process it, especially at a younger age.”
Everyone has First Amendment rights, but the Supreme Court has held that officers agree through employment to limitations on what they can say and with whom they can associate.
Police “are armed government agents with the power to arrest ( and) often kill with impunity,” said Jared Keenan, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. They’re people “who will, by definition of their job, interject themselves into many, many people’s lives,” from all backgrounds and races.
A terrorism liaison officer who subscribes to Oath Keeper ideology is likely to view actions by certain nonwhite people as terrorism, but not the same actions by a white person, Keenan said. “There’s a potential for a lot of tradecraft secrets and tactics that police use being linked and given to the adversaries,” Johnson said.
Michael German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, said the FBI has long trained agents that extremists often will have active links to law enforcement officers. German said agents are trained to modify their tactics to deal with that.
The list of people who signed up for the Oath Keepers was obtained in a hack of its website; some files were made available to journalists by the whistleblower Distributed Denial of Secrets.
“The fact that there are so many that actually put their name on ... highlights how this kind of activity is tolerated within law enforcement,” German said. But “the police don’t get to decide what laws should be enforced and what laws shouldn’t.”