Last week, President Donald Trump called on the Department of Justice to devote extra resources to prosecuting crimes against law enforcement.
“It’s a shame what’s been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers,” Trump said as he signed the order.
He was making good on promises to push back against the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, which some conservatives have cast as a “war on cops.”
But a different, lesser-known ideology has a longer and more substantiated history of leading to deadly confrontations between extremists and police: the sovereign citizen movement. The far-right philosophy denies the legitimacy of nearly all government.
Between 1990 and 2015, people associated with the movement killed 54 law enforcement and criminal justice officials, according to an analysis by the University of Maryland’s START (Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) program. Sovereign citizens and similar right-wing extremists were responsible for 80 percent of ideologically motivated murders of on-duty police officers during those years, compared to only 12 such killings by Al Qaeda and other jihadists.
The sovereign citizen movement’s ranks are surprisingly deep. The extremism experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated in 2011 that there may be 100,000 “hard-core sovereign believers.”
A 2015 survey of law enforcement officers by Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina and David Schanzer of Duke University found that 74 percent of American criminal justice agencies see anti-government extremism a threat, nearly twice as many as highlighted the danger from radical jihadists.
Bob Paudert is tragically well acquainted with this threat.
A former West Memphis, Arkansas, police chief, his son Brandon Paudert was killed in 2010 by two followers of the sovereign citizen movement. Brandon and a fellow officer pulled over a father and a son, who opened fire during the traffic stop before fleeing and ultimately dying in a shoot-out themselves. Since then, Paudert has become an expert on these extremists. He spoke with The Trace about his son’s death, and how how federal authorities might help local police prepare for encounters that can quickly turn deadly.
My son was a sergeant out on a four-car interstate highway patrol. One of the others on that team, Officer Bill Evans, stopped a white Dodge Caravan driven by a father and son, Jerry Kane, Jr., and Joseph Kane. Joseph was 16 years old.
Brandon, my son, pulled up in his cruiser 10 minutes later to assist Evans with the stop. He ran the van’s license plate, and learned that it was registered to a church in Ohio. Jerry said he was a pastor and a sovereign citizen. No one at the time knew what that meant. My son thought he’d stopped a pastor who was traveling, evangelizing. He wasn’t worried about his safety.
The pastor gave my son and officer Evans a ton of paperwork — none of it was recognizable as a state registration. He didn’t even have a license. Instead, he handed over a homemade “traveller’s card.” Everyone was confused. They didn’t know what this paperwork was. Their guard was down to zero.
Jerry Kane was at that time ready to kill the next police officer that stopped him at a traffic stop. His son got out of the van with an AK-47 and opened fire. Two minutes after my son arrived, he and Evans were dead.
You almost think events like this can’t happen. Evans was one of the best-trained SWAT team members I’d ever seen. He’d been in dangerous situations, high-risk traffic stops. And he was killed by a 16-year-old kid without even drawing his weapon.
My son was a seven-year veteran of the force. He’d worked drug cases, and the team he was leading that day was looking out for traffickers. But he didn’t know these two posed any kind of threat.
That night, the FBI arrived on the scene. My assistant chief asked them, “What are you doing here?” It turned out these guys were in the FBI’s database as sovereign citizens. So why didn’t my son get a hit when he checked the registration of the car? Why didn’t the FBI share this information with us? Not one chief or sheriff I spoke to afterward knew about the sovereign citizens.
Later, I was invited to Washington, D.C., to meet with the FBI. I wanted to know why my men didn’t know these guys were sovereign citizens. The Kanes were in a database, but were listed as white-collar criminals for evading taxes, not as domestic terrorists.
If Bill and Brandon had known what they were confronting that day when they pulled over that van, they might be alive. They could have called for backup. I don’t want that to happen to any other officers.
A year after the shooting, I retired and joined the State and Local Anti-Terrorism (SLATT), a program funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. It was my job to inform officers around the country about the threat extremists like sovereign citizens might pose to their safety. I travelled to every state except Hawaii.
Sovereign citizens have been more active in recent years because of Second Amendment issues. We found fear of new gun laws under Obama contributed to fear of the government, growth of the movement, and to the degree of hostility toward government employees. They’re a bigger problem than people realize. People don’t realize the individual who ambushed and killed three officers in Baton Rouge last year was a sovereign citizen.
But for some reason, our government has de-emphasized the need to keep track of sovereign citizens and raise awareness of the movement among law enforcement. Last year, the SLATT program was cut. About 25 instructors lost their jobs. The DOJ decided not to fund it. No one knew why. But I still go out on my own.
Federal law enforcement agencies consider the movement a serious enough threat to put out reports on them, but they don’t actually collect intelligence on individual sovereigns like they would jihadists. I agree taxes are too high, but I don’t think we should go against the government, certainly not with guns.
The FBI keeps databases on violent gang members that local police can access, so why can’t they do the same for sovereigns? The government ought to collect and store information about this group that officers can be alerted to in cases like traffic stops, especially if the individuals have a criminal history.
Maybe Obama didn’t want to stir right-wing extremists up by cracking down on them. I think he skirted around the issue. He never came down on these groups like I thought they would, not even on the white supremacists. I never understood why the government doesn’t put more effort into stopping homegrown terrorism.
I’m hopeful that the Trump administration will do more about the threat of domestic terrorism, but reports that he’s shutting down a Department of Homeland Security program doesn’t bode well. I know the president says he is going after ISIS, but I’ve never heard anything about what he plans to do the dangerous extremists most likely to kill police.
Photo: Two firefighters suspend a flag during the funeral of slain police Sgt. Brandon Paudert. (AP/Danny Johnston)