US looking at how to weed out extremists in law enforcement

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Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, testify before the Senate Appropriations committee hearing to examine domestic extremism, Wednesday, May 12, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has begun an internal review to determine how to remove any extremists from within federal law enforcement following the arrest of current and former police officers for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.

Garland, in response to a question during a Senate hearing on domestic extremism, described a review that was in its early stages and is complicated by the need to avoid violating the First Amendment rights of Justice Department employees.

The deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, “has met with the heads of all of our law enforcement agencies to determine how we can carefully vet our own employees,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It was a notable disclosure considering that the Justice Department is charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws and oversees the FBI, which is the lead agency in charge of investigating the growing threat posed by violent domestic extremists.

It is also potentially tricky legal ground because of the risk of intrusion on personal beliefs that are protected under the Constitution.

Garland described those competing interests as "being mindful of First Amendment free associational rights, but at the same time being careful that we don’t have people in our ranks who commit criminal acts or who are not able to carry out their duties.”

The Department of Homeland Security last month announced a similar review aimed at determining the extent of any presence of violent extremists within its ranks. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who also testified at Wednesday's hearing on the broader efforts by their agencies to address the growing threat from extremism, told the committee that the results of that analysis would be publicly released.

The attorney general's disclosure of an internal review came in response to a question from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin about the arrest of a retired New York Police Department officer, Thomas Webster, in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in which supporters of President Donald Trump sought to force Congress to overturn the results of the November election.