All Officer Justin Martin wanted to do was help.
Early in the morning on November 2, 2016, the 24-year-old was on patrol in the suburban town of Urbandale, Iowa. He was still fairly new to the town’s police department but, according to colleagues, he loved the local community and serving on the force.
But as Martin drove by the Urbandale High School football stadium, bullets suddenly started to fly. He was struck multiple times and killed in his patrol car. The exact sequence of events has never been definitively established; based on the crime scene, police speculate that Martin had seen a car pulled over as he passed the high school. Believing it to be a stranded driver, he made a U-turn to assist them, and was shot as he did so. Martin didn’t even have time to un-holster his weapon.
“I called him a kid but [Justin] was the kind of man you wanted your kids to turn out to be,” Sergeant Chad Underwood of the Urbandale Police Department told ThinkProgress. “He had been an Eagle Scout and he carried that into his work. I can’t express how much of a fine young man he was,” Underwood said. “He was exceptional.” He added that Martin was the first line of duty death in the department’s 100-year history.
But the nightmare for local law enforcement didn’t end there. Just 20 minutes later, Sergeant Anthony Beminio, 38, of the Des Moines Police Department was shot and killed a mile-and-a-half away. Like Martin, he was ambushed as he sat in his patrol car. Underwood said authorities believe Beminio hadn’t gotten word of Martin’s killing by the time he was shot.
A few hours later, police took 46-year-old Scott Michael Greene into custody for the two murders. Greene was known to police and had a record of far-right agitation, like waving a Confederate flag around at a high school football game or calling a man the N-word and threatening to kill him.
Last May, Greene was sentenced to two life terms for the killings of Officers Beminio and Martin.
The shootings that stunned the quiet Iowa suburb that November represent just two of the nearly three dozen law enforcement officers in the U.S. who have been killed by far-right extremists in the last 10 years alone. Data gathered by ThinkProgress shows that between 2007 and 2017, at least 33 officers were shot by individuals either actively involved with or affiliated with far-right extremism. These include white supremacists, sovereign citizens, and lone wolf attackers.
The data shows that far-right extremists pose a consistent threat to law enforcement, particularly in more rural areas away from the national media spotlight. But even at a time of renewed focus on the far-right, discussion of these killings has been muted.
“People don’t understand that these law enforcement fatalities are perpetuated by people with violent ideology, who’ve had a lot of time to think, plan, and rehearse,” Daryl Johnson, a former senior Homeland Security analyst and current consultant on domestic terrorism, told ThinkProgress. “Traffic stops, evictions — these are spontaneous encounters and law enforcement are caught off guard. [Right-wing extremists] think God’s on their side and police officers are evil representatives of the government.”
Of the 23 separate attacks examined between 2007 and 2017, close to half (10 killings, or 44 percent) were carried out by white supremacists, with anti-government extremists responsible for six, and sovereign citizens three. Eleven officers were killed during police ambushes, nine when they were raiding a house or serving a warrant, and six during a shootout. Florida had by far the most incidents of any individual state — five. Colorado, Louisiana, Utah, and Pennsylvania each had two.
“If you take the number of far-right extremist-related murders and compare to the total number of U.S. murders it’s insignificant,” Mark Pitcavage, an expert on right-wing extremism for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), told ThinkProgress. “But if you take the far-right murders of law enforcement and compare that like-for-like [with the total number of law enforcement officers killed] it’s a much more substantial minority. They would be a slice of the pie on those murders.”
The self-radicalized, lone wolf-style attacks often seen in modern extremism can make it difficult to differentiate between attacks where individuals are following a particular ideology versus those where an individual may show some clues of extremist sympathies, but may have also been driven by other motivating factors. Even organizations that closely track these killings, like ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), sometimes disagree whether an attack was an example of extremism or not.
“It may have been that way 20 years ago when people get indoctrinated [in person],” Johnson said. “[But] we’re living in an age now where people get radicalized over the internet, where people are coming to construct their belief system.”
ThinkProgress’ tally also includes four corrections officers, killed in three separate attacks. The nature of the killings and perpetrators — specifically, the fact that the officers were killed by individuals with direct ties to white supremacist prison gangs — merits their inclusion.
Some of these shootings have made national news, like the 2009 killing of three Pittsburgh police officers by neo-Nazi and white supremacist Richard Poplawski, or the ambush and killing of two Las Vegas police officers by anti-government extremists in 2014. But a significant number of the attacks took place in more rural areas and did not receive the same coverage, such as the 2017 murder of Deputy Mason Moore near Three Forks, Montana.
Last May, Moore attempted to pull over an SUV driven by Lloyd Barrus and his son, Marshall. The pair refused to stop and a high-speed pursuit ensued. After around six minutes, Moore was struck by gunfire. According to The Missoulian, the Barruses then made a U-turn and traveled back towards the stricken deputy to finish him off.
Lloyd Barrus had a history of anti-government views and previously spent 15 years in prison for his role in another high-speed chase in 2000 where he helped bring down a California Highway Patrol helicopter.
Pitcavage highlighted the Barrus case as an example of the way right-wing extremists can sometimes fly under the radar — even someone like Lloyd Barrus, who had been in prison and had a documented history of violence towards law enforcement. He added that the shooting in Montana also highlights the dangers right-wing extremists pose to officers in more rural areas. There, officers are more likely to be alone and backup is often miles away, making them perfect targets for extremists with a hatred of law enforcement.
“Far-right extremists have an attack-oriented mentality. They believe their beliefs are the true beliefs,” Johnson said. “They’ve prepared their entire lives for encounter with police; they have a plan on how to escape and how to agitate.”
But these officer killings only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to documenting violent interactions between far-right extremists and the police, however. From 2009 to 2016, ADL documented 60 incidents in which shootouts between right-wing extremists and law enforcement officers occurred.
One of those involved self-described “Imperial Wizard” of the American White Knights of the KKK, Joseph Harper. In 2016, Harper confronted and shot at deputies in Dooly County, Georgia, while wearing a gas mask and body armor, before committing suicide.
Notably, the ThinkProgress list doesn’t include two of the deadliest attacks on police in recent years: the shooting of three officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and five officers in Dallas, Texas, both in 2016. In those cases, both of the perpetrators had ties to obscure black nationalist groups. Both the SPLC and ADL have noted a worrying resurgence in black nationalism in recent years. In early February this year, three Henry County Sheriff’s deputies were shot, one fatally, in Locust Grove, Georgia while confronting a Moorish sovereign citizen — a group which, according to the ADL, “combines longstanding sovereign citizen beliefs and tactics with some newer, primarily Afrocentric notions.”
But, according to Pitcavage, the militant resurgence from black nationalists still doesn’t compare to the dangers law enforcement face from the far-right. “This is most significant amount of black nationalist activity we’ve had since the 1980s, you have to acknowledge it,” Pitcavage said. “But it’s not anywhere close to the far-right. You have to keep it in perspective. It’s fine to act on it but it doesn’t take away from the dangers of right-wing extremism.”
Since President Donald Trump’s election, there has been a well-documented spike in far-right activity, including a significant rise in hate crimes and white supremacist groups openly recruiting on college campuses. White nationalist groups have also shared bomb-making materials online and used leaked military documents to organize online campaigns. One neo-Nazi hate group in the U.S. was recently tied to five murders in eight months, while a January report by the SPLC tied the so-called “alt-right” to 43 deaths since 2014.
“Whenever a group makes itself more organized it becomes more dangerous,” Johnson said. “When you have a disjointed movement, they get distracted. You’re going to have attacks but it’s not going be as sophisticated. The more organized and the more charismatic [a group’s leaders are] it draws more people in.”
The surprise nature of the attacks against law enforcement — whether through ambushes, traffic stops, or serving a warrant — means that preparing to face the threat is a very difficult task. Pitcavage highlighted important steps that could be taken, like providing extra training on extremist threats, or emphasizing de-escalation techniques that might reduce the risk of weapons being drawn. Johnson emphasized the Valor Initiative, by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which trains officers on how to respond to ambushes or escalating scenarios.
However, given the propensity for conspiracy theories and paranoia to fester among far-right groups, it’s unlikely that the motivating factors behind the attacks can ever be completely dashed out.
“There’s nothing you can do but stay vigilant,” Sgt. Underwood explained. “An unexpected attack is very difficult to train for. It’s forever changed us.”
In wake of Officer Martin’s killing, the Urbandale community rallied around its police department. Nearly 900 officers attended Martin’s funeral, and a local soccer field was named in his honor. Underwood added that, in the days after the shooting, the department had to buy extra fridges and freezers to store the condolence gifts from the local community. Despite the outpouring of support, Martin’s murder still shook Urbandale to its core.
“I don’t think anyone in the police department or the community will forget the second of November, 2016,” he said.