The law enforcement officers described what they could offer the Oath Keepers:
“I have a wide variety of law enforcement experience, including undercover operations, surveillance and SWAT,” one wrote on the membership application.
“Communications, Weapons, K9 Officer for local Sheriffs office 12 years to present,” wrote another.
“I am currently working as a deputy sheriff in Texas,” typed a third.
These men, who had sworn to uphold the law, were signing up to join an armed, extremist, anti-government group.
The Oath Keepers trade in conspiracy theories and wild interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Its members have been involved in armed standoffs with the federal government. Some face charges in connection with their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The statements are part of a massive trove of data hacked from the Oath Keepers website. The data, some of which the whistleblower group Distributed Denial of Secrets made available to journalists, includes a file that appears to provide names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of almost 40,000 members.
A search of that list revealed more than 200 people who identified themselves as active or retired law enforcement officers when signing up. USA TODAY confirmed 20 of them are still serving, from Alabama to California. Another 20 have retired since joining the Oath Keepers.
One man who filled out the form claimed he was a federal police officer and once worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
These men are almost certainly just a small fraction of the law enforcement officers who joined the militia over the years, since the vast majority of people listed did not volunteer information about their employment. The leaked data does not indicate whether the people on the list are now dues-paying members.
Founded after the election of Barack Obama in 2009 by Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers refuse to acknowledge the authority of the federal government. Members must abide by a declaration of conspiracy-laden orders they will refuse to enforce, including disarming the American people.
Rhodes has long claimed that the group, which experts believe is the largest unauthorized militia in the country, is made up primarily of active and retired law enforcement officers and military personnel.
Just one Oath Keeper serving in a police or sheriff’s department is too many, said Daryl Johnson, a security consultant and former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security.
“The Oath Keepers subscribe to anti-government conspiracy theories, so the fact that officers belong to an organization that believes in this type of stuff really calls into question their discretion and their ability to make sound judgments,” Johnson said.
More concerning is the fact that the Oath Keepers make their members swear an oath of allegiance, much like the police and military, Johnson said. That creates a dangerous conflict of interest.
“They look at the U.S. government as an enemy,” he said. “When it comes down to a crisis situation or an investigation involving other militias, where is this person’s allegiance? Most likely with the Oath Keepers and not the police department.”
Oath Keepers sought
Scott Dunn, who left the Oath Keepers board of directors in 2019 after disagreements with Rhodes, said the group’s membership form asked people to list their relevant skills.
Rhodes “wanted to use that information as a searchable database, so we could punch in Oklahoma and it would show us all the different specialties around Oklahoma, or we could search for a specific type of skill and it would show which members had that skill,” he said.
James Holsinger, a lieutenant with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland, is on the list. Holsinger is running for sheriff in the county, where Hagerstown is located.
He did not respond to several requests for comment.
On the form, Holsinger apparently wrote that he “designed and implemented tactical rescue drills” and had “experience with an assortment of weapons (lethal and nonlethal).”
Officers around the country joined the Oath Keepers
USA TODAY contacted dozens of active-duty and retired officers to ask why they joined the Oath Keepers. Most didn’t respond; nearly everyone who did said they were no longer members. One retired Marine and correctional officer said he still supports the group.
In 20 cases, law enforcement agencies or the men themselves confirmed they were still employed there. Among the officers identified on the membership list are:
- An officer at the Louisville Metro Police Department who was involved in an officer-involved shooting in 2018.
- A former U.S. Army member who joined the New York Police Department and a former U.S. Army captain who joined the Chicago Police Department. Both are still police officers there.
- An 80-year-old, part-time officer at the Ashley County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas.
- A corrections officer in Riverside, California.
Major Eben Bratcher, operations chief with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, is among them. Bratcher told USA TODAY he recalled receiving newsletters from the group for “some time.”
“I may have signed up many years ago but do not recall any specifics,” Bratcher said. “I do know that I unsubscribed some time ago due to the sheer volume of email I received.”
When Bratcher signed up, he apparently wrote this note: “We have 85 sworn officers and Border (of) Mexico on the South and California on the West. I’ve already introduced your web site to dozens of my Deputies.”
Bratcher said he didn’t recall writing that. “It is probable that I spoke to numerous people about the new organization,” he said.
Constable Joe Wright, of Collin County, Texas, said he joined in 2012, when he was running for office for the first time.
“To be honest, I felt pressured to join it in this county for political support,” Wright said. “The Oath Keepers, if you didn’t support them you were going to get bad reviews.”
Wright said he didn’t know much about the group at the time. He said he remembers receiving a box of Oath Keepers paraphernalia, including brochures and stickers, after signing up. He said he threw it in the trash and hasn’t engaged with the group since being elected in the county northeast of Dallas.
“I don’t support them,” Wright said. “I’m not into radical. I’m into doing my job.”
Officers say they’re no longer members
Several officers admitted signing up but claimed their membership expired long ago.
For example, Michael Lynch, an officer with the Anaheim Police Department in California, said he joined the Oath Keepers many years ago, but he didn’t renew his membership when he learned more about the group.
“I didn’t get anything out of it,” he said in an interview. “There was no local chapter or anything, so when it came time to renew I was like, I’m not sending another $40.”
Lynch was the officer who boasted of his undercover, surveillance and SWAT training.
“Obviously we had no knowledge of this,” said Anaheim spokesman Sgt. Shane Carringer. “We will look into what options we have as a department while considering what rights our officer has.”
Always an extremist group, but lately more extreme
It’s unclear from the hacked data exactly when the officers in question signed up. Experts on the Oath Keepers said the militia has certainly changed since its founding in 2009.
What started during the Obama administration as a group to fight what it saw as federal government overreach has developed into a more hateful and paranoid organization, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She has tracked the Oath Keepers since their inception.
“Rhodes and company have become much more radical,” Beirich said.
Nonetheless, the Oath Keepers was always an extremist group, she said. It was founded in nonsensical and hateful conspiracy theories and always had an anti-government bent.
She and other experts said they were concerned about law enforcement officers who joined the Oath Keepers at any point.
“I don’t think police officers should be involved with extremist groups,” Beirich said. “You are a part of the government, you represent the full, whole community as a police officer, and there’s obviously a problem when you’re in a group that’s questioning the government’s right to do the things that the government has the right to do.”
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said she understands how law enforcement officers could have joined the Oath Keepers years ago without knowing much about it.
Lynch, the officer in Anaheim, said he joined in 2016 after talking to recruiters at a booth at a gun show in Las Vegas. He said he thought they were an alternative to the National Rifle Association.
MacNab buys that.
“People join stuff all the time without doing any due diligence,” she said. “And for years the only due diligence you could have done was on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, and most police officers would immediately dismiss that as biased.”
For most Americans, joining the Oath Keepers is an act protected by the First Amendment. But several Supreme Court cases have established that police departments can place broad limits what their employees may say or write, and what organizations they belong to.
Most officers are under the false impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to say just about anything on social media or in public, said Valerie Van Brocklin, a former federal prosecutor who trains police departments on using social media.
“The vast majority of cops in the country don’t understand this,” Van Brocklin said. “A public employer does not have to pay you for your insubordination or dishonorable conduct that sullies the badge and the uniform.”
Contributing: Aleszu Bajak, Dan Keemahill, Mike Stucka