Over the last decade, dozens of current and former law enforcement officers, military personnel, and government officials in New Jersey joined a far-right, anti-government militia called the Oath Keepers, according to a WNYC/Gothamist analysis of what appear to be membership rolls obtained by an anonymous hacker.
In response, the state’s Attorney General’s office said it was troubled by the findings, and that it would evaluate “what reforms are necessary to root out extremism among law enforcement ranks.” That push comes after WNYC/Gothamist reported last month that the same hacked information, which lists names and other personal information of alleged members, indicated some NYPD officers had also joined the group. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered an investigation into the associations.
Members of the Oath Keepers have become a focus for federal prosecutors investigating the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Video footage of the melee showed a team of people wearing Oath Keepers insignia, clad in camouflage as they charged up the Capitol steps in military formation. Eighteen members of the group have been indicted for conspiracy and at least five have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the event.
Currently, New Jersey has no state law forbidding law enforcement or other public officials from being involved with the Oath Keepers or other similar organizations like the Proud Boys or Three Percenters, groups with white supremacist ties that have also been linked to the attack on the Capitol.
However, the state Attorney General’s office said police departments and other local agencies have the authority to establish rules that ensure employees’ personal associations and conduct do not conflict with their duties to the public, as long as those rules don’t inappropriately infringe on officers’ First Amendment rights. The office said it was working to determine what changes are needed to prevent extremist groups from infiltrating law enforcement organizations in the state.
“To build and maintain the trust of the communities they serve—especially vulnerable communities that have been targeted by hate groups in the past—it is imperative the ranks of our law enforcement be free of bias and hate,” said Steven Barnes, a spokesperson for Acting New Jersey Attorney General Andrew Bruck.
The founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, has long sought to recruit current and former members of the military and law enforcement to its ranks as part of a long-term strategy to challenge the authority of the federal government, according to researchers who monitor hate groups. The militia has claimed to have more than 30,000 dues-paying members and has been labeled as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
The hacked Oath Keepers membership data, which were given to a non-profit journalism organization called Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoS) and posted online, have been used by media outlets across the country to identify alleged members of the militia group, although the logs do not indicate the extent of an individual’s involvement.
The records show that members were encouraged to list skills and experience that could be beneficial to the militia. Among the more than 500 people with New Jersey addresses listed in the data, many described a range of skills learned from years of service in law enforcement, the U.S. military, and other public sector positions.
“I would be willing to help people to the best of my ability with my knowledge of computers and networking,” one entry read.
“I have security reaction force training (Navy SWAT),” said another.
WNYC/Gothamist’s review of the records also identified numerous current and former corrections officers, firefighters, EMTs, and other public servants across the Garden State.
In response to the findings, Alexandra Altman, a spokesperson for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, noted that extremist groups like the Oath Keepers “endanger the fabric of our democracy.”
“Governor Murphy has zero tolerance for those who willingly participate in acts of domestic terrorism and those who do so will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” Altman said.
For more than a decade, federal law enforcement officials have been concerned about the possible infiltration of police agencies by far-right groups, which they fear could undermine active investigations and the ability of elected officials to carry out democratic mandates.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said he was alarmed that officers’ names and personal information were in the membership data.
“The Oath Keepers are an anti-government militia whose stated mission is to disobey orders they disagree with—which is in complete conflict with the real oath police take to protect and serve and dutifully enforce the law,” Booker said in an email. “It is particularly concerning that there might be members who are currently police officers, especially given the group’s nativist views and involvement with the January 6th insurrection, and I know that there are law enforcement officials who share my concerns.”
Hundreds of Oath Keepers Across New Jersey
The Oath Keepers’ name is a reference to the oath that members of the military take to defend the Constitution. Since its founding in 2009, the group has espoused a far-right interpretation of that oath, and it views the federal government as a tyrannical force that must be reined in.
Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor who wrote a book on the Oath Keepers, said the group specifically targets police and military personnel because they’re on the front lines of enforcing measures that violate its militant, libertarian ideology, such as gun control measures or Covid-19 emergency restrictions, and can therefore disrupt their implementation.
“If you can get to those populations beforehand and convince them that such an act would be unconstitutional and un-American, then maybe you can prevent the people from carrying out those orders in the first place,” Jackson said.
To confirm the identities of people who had signed up with the Oath Keepers, WNYC/Gothamist cross-referenced hundreds of names, email addresses, and home addresses on the hacked list against those found in news articles, social media, and public databases of state and federal government employees, salaries, and pension information. The results suggest the militant group has recruited a significant number of current and former law enforcement and military personnel in New Jersey over several years.
Roughly 20 people in the records matched the names, phone area codes, and address locations of police and corrections officers who were listed as active within the last two years. These included officers in two of the state’s largest and most diverse cities, Jersey City and Paterson, along with a swath of rural and suburban communities.
WNYC/Gothamist attempted to contact all active and former law enforcement officers who could be identified in the membership data. Most did not respond to phone calls, text messages and emails requesting comment. The few who did said they were no longer or had never been active with the group.
The investigation also identified another 15 people who claimed to have or could be identified as having military experience. Three other people appear in a payroll database of federal government employees from 2020, including one listed with the Department of Homeland Security.
Another 17 members either self-identified as, or matched the names of current and former firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders in New Jersey.
Mike German, a former FBI agent who’s investigated far-right extremists, warned that the presence of Oath Keepers within the ranks of emergency responders could undermine public confidence in such agencies.
“The public depends on them coming out into the community and doing their job in a fair and equal manner to any potential victim,” he said. “So if they are bringing biases or interpreting the Constitution in a way that inappropriately excludes some part of the community, that's problematic.”
One corrections officer, currently employed by the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, is listed in the group’s records as having paid for an annual membership in 2014. The same officer was found to be a member of seven extremist and anti-Muslim groups on Facebook, according to a 2019 investigation by the public radio program Reveal. The officer was also part of an alt-right page called “Crusades Against Degeneracy,” according to NJ.com. He did not respond to requests for comment via phone, email and text message.
Another New Jersey law enforcement officer who appeared in the logs was Craig Iacouzzi, a detective currently serving in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in Jersey City. In a brief phone call, the officer confirmed he’d entered his information into an Oath Keepers’ form online, but claimed he only did so years ago for an “email subscription” to receive “current events and a different take on mainstream media perspective” and that he “never met anybody or spoke to anybody” from the organization.
Jennifer Morrill, a spokeswoman for the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office, said that her agency was investigating the officer’s ties to Oath Keepers and would seek guidance from the Attorney General’s Office. Any information would be turned over to the FBI, she said.
"There are obvious concerns about any member of law enforcement participating in a group such as this,” Morrill said in an email.
“Challenge To Our Democracy”
In his testimony to Congress earlier this year, then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal warned that extremist militias were a threat in the state.
“New Jersey law enforcement agencies have recognized the risk that militia extremism will infiltrate their ranks,” Grewal said at a subcommittee hearing on violent white supremacy, citing a 2013 revelation that members of the Three Percenters were working within the Jersey City Police Department.
But it’s unclear how far local officials will go to confront such risks. Neither the Jersey City mayor’s office, the Paterson mayor’s office, or the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office responded to questions about whether their employees’ apparent affiliations with extremist groups violate their personnel policies or merit further investigation.
German, the former FBI agent, said public trust in police departments and other frontline agencies will depend on thorough investigations that closely examine an officer or other public employee’s links with the Oath Keepers and similar organizations, including any civil rights lawsuits or civilian complaints filed against them that may serve as additional warning signs.
But he urged public officials to be cautious. Some people who signed up for the group, German argued, may have misunderstood its ideology or had little participation. Others, he said, should be taken out of people-facing roles or removed from the force.
“It's not an all-or-nothing thing,” German said. “There may be some people who didn't really understand what this organization was about, or before January 6th didn't realize how far that kind of idea could get people into trouble.”
Still, while public officials should be afforded due process, authorities must have the courage to take the threat of extremism seriously and carry out intensive investigations, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“A large swath of the American public and elected officials are complacent to this threat, and I think that’s a fundamental challenge to our democracy,” Lewis said. “Groups like the Oath Keepers and other extreme anti-government groups really do seek to collapse this democratic system from within.”