Last year, Matt Patten, a sergeant with the Broward County, Florida, sheriff’s office, set off a minor scandal when he posed for a photo with Vice President Mike Pence while wearing an agency-issued SWAT vest bearing a "QAnon" patch that read "question the narrative." Depending on who you ask, QAnon is either an amorphous, continually shifting pro-Trump conspiracy theory or possible anti-Trump prank that has been percolating in the cultural ether for well over a year. Among other views, many adherents hold (incorrectly, of course) that the president is secretly working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to expose high-level Democrats’ involvement in a murderous, Satanic pedophile ring.
About a month ago, the sheriff’s office disciplined Patten for violating its employee conduct and uniform policies. (The 31-year vet was removed from the local Homeland Security branch and SWAT team and chided for breaching official practices of political neutrality.) But Patten is hardly the only cop who has voiced, shown solidarity with—or shared materials related to—a conspiracy theory. Famously, after the Umpqua Community College mass shooting in 2015, reporters found that local sheriff John Hanlin had previously shared content on his personal Facebook page suggesting the feds may have staged the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting—and even the 9/11 terrorist attacks—as pretenses to disarm the public by way of gun control laws. The posts Hanlin engaged with—seemingly approvingly—also advanced the idea that the parents of murdered Sandy Hook children were, in fact, “crisis actors.” Likewise, notorious (albeit pardoned) criminal and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio used his office, and public resources, right up until his ouster in a 2016 election, to promote the racist anti-Obama “birther” conspiracy theory. Neither Arpaio nor Hanlin appear to have faced real pushback for their conspiratorial alignments (though Hanlin later denied believing the crisis actor theory).And those are just the high-profile, national cases.
It is tempting to brush off most instances of cops aligning themselves with conspiracy theories. After all, according to some research, the majority of Americans believe in some kind of conspiracy theory, and usually that belief doesn’t amount to very much. But the last two years have demonstrated that conspiratorial beliefs can morph into concerning—or worse—real-world actions. The presence of unabashed conspiracy theorists in the White House, the president chief among them, has also arguably emboldened peddlers of these toxic or just not-factual ideas. In the case of law-enforcement officers, it is not unreasonable to worry that a clear adherence to a conspiracy theory—an honest belief, say, that the Democratic Party is one big pedophile ring, that many mass shootings are “false flag” operations, or that liberal protestors are paid actors—may seriously bias their interactions with the public or compromise criminal investigations. At the very least, their open association with these ideas could spread misinformation, or (further) erode public trust in law-enforcement institutions.
So what can be done about law-enforcement officials who, in one way or another, align themselves with conspiracy theories? VICE reached out to Samuel Walker, a prominent expert on police law and conduct and emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for perspective.
VICE: In general, is it appropriate for law enforcement officers, given the place of authority they hold in their communities, to voice belief in or share stuff related to conspiracy theories?
Samuel Walker: Basically, off the job, police officers enjoy the same free speech rights that the rest of us do. If they’re publicly putting out conspiracy theories about a case that they or the department are working on, that is different. That would be a violation of department policy; an officer can’t publicly discuss the background of a robbery suspect or someone who has been arrested, for example. But in terms of things unrelated to department activities, how are conspiracy theories different from most religious beliefs? Where do you draw the line? Are you saying there are some theories of how the world and universe operate that are acceptable and some that are not?
Where it gets trickier is when you get into areas of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual [identity]. What if a police officer is a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Is that person disqualified from being a police officer? I think it depends on the officer’s actions. If there is evidence of discriminatory actions in, for instance, traffic stops or uses of force, the officer should be disciplined for that. And a person’s membership in a racist organization then becomes relevant to the extent of his or her [racist] beliefs [and thus the discipline meted out]. But if a person is a member of whatever group and that officer’s conduct on the force is without any serious blemish, I don’t think it’s relevant.
Threats against the president of the United States are a crime. So an officer can express his or her opinion about whoever happens to be president. But if it verges into the territory of incitement, as in “somebody ought to take care of that guy,” well, that’s a crime, and that person is not fit to be a police officer. So there are a bunch of different areas and some are clear and some are grey.
Officers may have the same private free speech rights as anyone else. But is the situation different if one is using their position with a law enforcement agency, or the resources of an agency, to broadcast a conspiracy theory, or broadcasting it while on the job?
Yes, very much so. A police officer is a public servant. Their commitment is to neutrality, dealing with all people on an equal basis. So a police officer cannot be communicating a political message on the job. I regard that as pretty serious.
On public policy issues, such as legalizing marijuana or gun control, there are a number of police chiefs who are very active as advocates. Chiefs regularly testify before state legislatures and city councils on these public policy issues. As a group, they have a right and responsibility to comment on what is in the best interest in terms of community safety. Obviously, people are going to disagree on, say, guns. But if there’s a public policy issue and they have direct, professional expertise, they should have a First Amendment right there. So I would make an exception there.
What if a conspiracy theorist in law enforcement honestly believes that, say, a massive, Democrat-run pedophile ring is a real and major public safety concern? Does that open a free speech window to use a position in law enforcement to speak on the QAnon theory?
I don’t think so. We can draw some lines between those [issues] that have some—and it’s very difficult—legitimacy [as public policy issues], and others that are verging over into issues unrelated to the law enforcement profession. In the whole world of First Amendment law, there are some things that are very clear, and some things that are very difficult and murky.
For conspiracy theory-related actions that clearly violate on-the-job, official-capacity neutrality, or other codes of conduct, are there clear standards for discipline?
We have no national standards for policing. We have 18,000 separate local police departments—15,000 city police departments and 3,000 county sheriffs. The only applicable national standard would be Supreme Court decisions. The Miranda decision is a national standard. But 99 percent of police work involves issues where there is no national standard. On some issues, some states have statutes that cover areas of policing. Since Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, there’s been a real rash of laws about police accountability in terms of open records and transparency.
But one of the real problems in this country is that we have these 18,000 separate, independent, local law enforcement agencies. And they do most of the work in policing.
So for something like the QAnon patch incident, it’s essentially just local discretion, or local law if relevant, that dictates discipline for a flagrant violation of on-the-job neutrality?
Right, that’s the current situation. Should the law enforcement official be disciplined and they appeal [and] that discipline and that appeal goes all the way to the Supreme Court, that decision, one way or the other, would be a definitive national standard. Or, if it just went to the state Supreme Court, it would be a statewide standard, but would have no applicability in any other state.
What if an official espouses or shares content related to a conspiracy theory that has nothing to do with legitimate public safety policy concerns, and makes many under their jurisdiction feel uncomfortable, but there is no clear reprimand for their blatant political maneuvering while on the job—like with Joe Arpaio (who had no "boss" per se, as an elected cop)? Or what if their constituents feel like a reprimand that comes down is insufficient for the scale of the breach of trust or neutrality involved?
There is some room for challenging some kinds of political actions. What I think happened with Joe Arpaio was, he was so bad in so many ways, and the profiling [of Latinos] issue was so dominant, that a lot of these things went unchallenged, just swamped by so much other stuff.
So some of this just comes down to how salient something an official says or does seems in relation to other concerns about a given department at a given time?
Yeah, especially in an extreme situation, which that was.
What about situations in which a law enforcement official shares conspiracy theory content on their personal social media channels, while off duty, but that private speech is visible enough that it causes concern among those under their jurisdiction about how they might act on the job, potentially influencing public faith in, or interactions with, law enforcement?That’s a good question, and a difficult one. I hadn’t really thought about this too much.
It seems like a concern that might grow more prominent in the coming years, as there is increasingly room online for people in positions of power to technically privately express their views, but still have them become very public expressions that might seem to many to have some relevance to how they could potentially approach official, on-the-job matters.
If it involved derogatory comments about immigration, for example, then it’s touched upon equal protection issues. It would be the same if it was about a particular religious group.
Here’s what needs to happen: One of the law enforcement professional associations needs to set up a working group on all of these related issues and come up with recommended national standards.
Would any professional group take this on, though? When this issue comes up, it’s usually an isolated case in one jurisdiction, while other sources of misconduct or decreased public trust in law enforcement relate to more apparently systematic and major issues. Isn’t this issue so sporadic that it would be functionally difficult to mobilize professional group action on it?
I don’t see it as being that farfetched an issue. Maybe there needs to be one high-profile case to spark work on it. But I can see it happening. And it is really needed.
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