Dr. James VanderMeer spent Jan. 6, 2021, facing down attackers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It piqued an interest in the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Sergeant and Behavioral scientist about how those attackers, including some current and former police officers, could end up so radicalized that they would assault the nation’s bastion of democracy.
VanderMeer, who earned a PhD. in Psychology from the University of Chicago for studying the social and cognitive underpinnings of conflict escalation, would end up studying that issue in depth for the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
In mid-June, VanderMeer finished a one-year CHDS Research Fellowship, the first of its kind, by presenting his work on preventing radicalization in law enforcement to Emergence Program cohort 2202 and receiving special recognition during the Emergence cohort’s graduation.
VanderMeer said the CHDS fellowship—a partnership between CHDS and DC Metropolitan Police—offered him many opportunities he wouldn’t ordinarily have. He said the chance to focus on radicalization over an extended period of time and to collaborate on a regular basis with two CHDS academic advisors, David O’Keeffe and Chris Bellavita, was invaluable.
“The [CHDS] fellowship was more than an academic opportunity,” VanderMeer said. “I was part of a committed team that dug in and developed some potentially impactful projects. The support and insight from CHDS has been tremendous. This is urgent work, and I’m proud and grateful to play a part.”
During his June presentation to the Emergence cohort entitled “Radicalization: Relevance and Resilience for Police/Practitioners,” VanderMeer covered a range of both theoretical concepts, like psychological models of radicalization and social conflict, to more practical concerns, such as contemporary extremist groups’ increasing use of savvy, image-conscious brand strategy and influence operations.
“Admitting vulnerability is hard, but ignoring vulnerability is dangerous.”– Dr. James VanderMeer
Concerning the vulnerability of police to radicalization, VanderMeer explained how “push factors” like occupational trauma, fatigue, public hostility, and negative stereotypes amplify the appeal of “pull factors” like ingratiating attempts at fraternization and the derision of police critics.
Subsequent discussion covered diverse topics including generational gaps between leadership and new recruits in law enforcement, the pace of policy change, and the impact of media and politics on the workplace.
VanderMeer said a major challenge is dealing with defensiveness on the topic, noting the amount of political division in the nation.
“Admitting vulnerability is hard, but ignoring vulnerability is dangerous,” he said. “For someone who saves lives and solves crimes for a living, the idea of being influenced or exploited online can be inconsistent with their self-image, but there’s no evidence that police are immune to these threats, and overconfidence might actually make us more vulnerable in some respects.”
For VanderMeer, understanding police as a vulnerable population “promotes constructive interventions and collaboration across diverse interests and expertise,” whereas “the prevailing reflex to either valorize or vilify even mundane police activity distorts and polarizes public perception.”
Now, VanderMeer plans to publish his research in an article for the CHDS Homeland Security Affairs Journal later this year and is working with DC Metropolitan Police and academic partner American University to use his research from the CHDS fellowship to develop a pilot training program aimed at “inoculating” law enforcement officers against online extremist messaging.
“Influence operations are increasingly sophisticated, and we know that police are priority targets,” warned VanderMeer. “So it’s crucial that we develop effective resilience programs.”
He said the pilot program will employ treatment and control groups to measure the overall effectiveness of the training, which includes instruction on how to recognize disinformation and protect one’s own online information.
The ultimate goal, according to VanderMeer, is to “scale out” the program for use by other law enforcement agencies.
“Online threats affect cops everywhere,” he said. “The more agencies we have working on this, the better our understanding, and the more we can mitigate the threat to officers.”