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Militias: initiating contact.

The growth of the organized militia movement represents one of the most significant social trends of the 1990s. This significance is due less to the actual size of the movement - by all measures, militia membership remains an almost imperceptible percentage of the population - than it is to the potential for death and destruction emanating from the most radical elements of the movement.

Few Americans knew of the militia movement or antigovernment extremists until the morning of April 19, 1995, when a bomb blast destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Although no apparent direct connection exists between members of any militia group and the bombing, those arrested held and expressed views espoused by some militia groups. Following the bombing, television, newspaper, and magazine features presented in-depth - if somewhat alarmist - exposes of the militia movement and the beliefs and values of militia members.

While the intense scrutiny given the militia movement during the past few years has served to educate the public, as well as police officials, about the fundamental beliefs and motivations of militia groups, this scrutiny also has served to raise as many questions as it has answered. What specific factors have fueled the growth of the militia movement? What immediate aims do militia groups wish to achieve? Are militia leaders primarily driven by defensive or aggressive philosophies? What explains the suspicion and distrust many militia members apparently feel toward law enforcement?

Of course, such questions can only be answered with any degree of accuracy by militia members themselves. So, to move beyond a surface understanding of the militia movement, logic dictates that law enforcement agencies go to the source, local militia leaders, to learn more detailed information.

This suggestion is not as impudent as it might first appear. In fact, as part of a broad-based effort to establish positive contacts between law enforcement agencies and local militia groups, simply establishing a dialogue with militia leaders can go a long way to removing some of the mystery that provides fertile ground for the suspicion and distrust that exist in both camps.

This article first summarizes what is known about the militia movement and then suggests a strategy that law enforcement agencies can use to initiate constructive dialogue with militia groups that have not demonstrated a propensity for aggressiveness and violence. The article also includes a threat assessment typology recently developed by the FBI to assist agencies in determining the threat level posed by individual militia groups.


Most militia organization members are white males who range in age from the early 20s to the mid-50s. The majority of militia members appear to be attracted to the movement because of gun control issues, as epitomized by the Brady Law, which established a 5-day waiting period prior to the purchase of a handgun, and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which limited the sale of various assault-style weapons. Many militia members believe that these legislative initiatives represent a government conspiracy to disarm the populace and ultimately abolish the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The federal government's role in confrontations with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, and Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, have further fueled conspiratorial beliefs that the government is becoming more tyrannical and attempting to reverse constitutional guarantees.

Militia members generally maintain strong Christian beliefs and justify their actions by claiming to be ardent defenders of the Constitution. They often compare the American Colonial period (16071783) to their present existence by relating significant Colonial dates and events to lend historical weight to their own beliefs and actions. Many militias claim to represent the ideological legacy of the founding fathers tracing their core beliefs to select writings and speeches that predate the Revolutionary War. Colonists at that time rebelled against the tyranny of King George III and what they saw as the British government's practice of oppression and unjust taxation. Various present-day militias pattern their actions on what they believe their ideological ancestors would do if they were alive today.

Using their interpretation of constitutional rights and privileges as their calling, militia members and antigovernment extremists have challenged federal and state laws and questioned the authority of elected officials to govern, tax, and maintain order. In doing so, they have created concerns for law enforcement and public officials who come into contact with them.

Still, many militia members and individuals who espouse antigovernment beliefs remain law-abiding citizens and do not advocate terrorist acts. Many organized militias have, in fact, condemned the Oklahoma City bombing and have stated that those responsible for the attack do not represent the philosophy and goals of today's militia groups.

Clearly, elements of the militia movement represent a threat to law enforcement and to the general public. At the same time, the militia movement is far from the monolithic terrorist conspiracy that some media accounts have portrayed it to be. How can law enforcement agencies determine which groups represent more of a threat than others? How can agency commanders assess the specific beliefs and philosophies of the groups they may encounter in their own jurisdictions? In many cases, all they need to do is ask.


Law enforcement officials should make proactive contacts with local militia leaders so that the two sides can voice their concerns and discuss relevant issues in a nonconfrontational way. Agency executives can establish the initial contact simply by calling the local militia leadership and arranging an informal meeting at a mutually agreeable location. By talking, law enforcement officials allow militia representatives to assess the character of the officers apart from the positions they hold.

Nonconfrontational dialogue also allows for a moderation of any negative stereotypes that militia members might hold toward law enforcement officers. Conversely, such contact should allow law enforcement representatives the chance to gauge and assess the true, or at least unprovoked, nature of the militia leaders.

After making the initial contact, a law enforcement agency should be in a position to arrange for future meetings, especially if a troubling issue arises or a crisis appears imminent. When each side realizes that the other is not as threatening or unreasonable as originally believed, nonconfrontational contacts will reduce anxiety levels and the potential for misunderstanding.

At times of impending crisis, established contacts will keep open the avenues of communication, enhancing the opportunities for affected parties to understand the issues and to resolve trouble in a peaceful manner. Such rational problem-solving strategies greatly increase the likelihood of achieving agreement between two groups whose goals may appear to be at cross purposes but, in reality, may be quite similar.

Making Contact

Since the Oklahoma City bombing, a growing number of law enforcement officials have established regular contacts with militia leaders in their jurisdictions. These contacts have improved understanding and promoted ongoing relationships between leaders of both groups.

Contacts with militia groups should be made by ranking departmental personnel who are in a position to speak with authority for the agency. Ideally, the agency's commanding officer should meet with the militia group's leader, as the two can best represent the goals, objectives, and legal positions of their respective organizations.

Historically, militia groups have placed more trust in county sheriffs' offices than in other law enforcement agencies, whether they are federal, state, or city. Law enforcement agencies at any level that previously have established contacts with local militia leaders should assist other agencies attempting to do so. In this way, law enforcement invokes a unified presence and demonstrates its ability to work together without territorial conflict, a strength militia leaders will notice.

Of course, law enforcement officials should take appropriate strategic precautions when meeting with militia groups. They should advise their agencies of the time and location of any meetings and should make sure meetings take place in areas that afford safety and security.

Nature of Contacts

Law enforcement agencies should not use contacts with militia groups as a way to gain or confirm intelligence information. Law enforcement possesses many ways to obtain intelligence and should not risk inflaming the suspicions of militia leaders by asking probing questions. Likewise, law enforcement representatives should not volunteer any sensitive information to militia representatives, as such disclosures may expose sources or investigative techniques.

During the initial meeting, law enforcement representatives should set a conversational tone that will lead to an open discussion of issues important to both sides. The goal is to establish an ongoing relationship.

During a recent incident in Louisiana involving a barricaded subject with militia connections, the value of a pre-established dialogue became apparent. As the incident unfolded, local militia leaders reached out to their law enforcement contacts to verify the information they received from various sources. Because law enforcement officials previously had established trust with militia leaders, the police were able to dispel false information being publicly conveyed by the subject. The subject eventually surrendered peacefully to the FBI and local law enforcement officials. Pre-established contacts allowed law enforcement to provide local militia leaders the facts surrounding the incident and to quell the misinformation and rumors that had spread through elements of the militia community.


Law enforcement agencies must exercise caution before initiating contact with militia groups. Because different groups operating within the same geographic area may pose widely varying degrees of threats, law enforcement officials should assess the threat level of a militia before attempting to make contact. In most cases, it is unadvisable to attempt proactive contact with groups that openly advocate violence toward law enforcement or other public agencies.

To assist agencies in gauging the threat level posed by militia groups, special agents in the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group developed the Militia Threat Assessment Typology.(1) Law enforcement agencies can use the typology to help determine which groups should and should not be contacted on a proactive basis.

Within the typology, category I groups represent the least threat to law enforcement agencies; category IV groups represent the greatest threat. Generally, only militia groups in categories I and II should be considered candidates for proactive contact. Given the type of criminal activity, threatening behavior, and paranoia exhibited by members of category III and IV militia groups, law enforcement officials should refrain from attempting to establish contact with leaders of these groups.


Before law enforcement officials attempt to make contact with leaders of any militia group, they should consult with other agencies that also may have an investigative interest. This allows agencies the opportunity to report the status of their activities and provide information that could prevent a well-intentioned contact from having a negative impact on ongoing investigations.


Communication represents a key component to successful policing. Initiating and maintaining dialogue with the less dangerous elements of the militia movement enable law enforcement agencies to establish communication with militias on constructive, nonconfrontational terms. With communication established, agencies and militia leaders can discuss issues openly and avert potential problems. If crises do develop, law enforcement commanders can use preestablished contacts to reach out to militia leaders and diffuse tensions. As a growing number of agencies have learned, the best time to begin talking is before trouble erupts.

The Militia Threat Assessment Typology

Category I Militia Groups

* Conduct paramilitary training

* Base their organizational philosophies on antigovernment rhetoric

* Maintain a primarily defensive philosophical posture. Plans for violent action are contingent upon perceived government provocation

* Engage in no known criminal activity.

Category II Militia Groups

* Conduct paramilitary training

* Base their organizational philosophies on antigovernment rhetoric

* Maintain a primarily defensive philosophical posture. Plans for violent action are contingent upon perceived government provocation

* Engage in criminal activity to acquire weapons and explosives. Criminal activity may range from minor firearms violations, e.g., illicit weapons sales and transfer, to illegal firearms modifications and property crimes.

Category III Militia Groups

* Conduct paramilitary training

* Base their organizational philosophies on extreme antigovernment rhetoric, denoting deep suspicion and paranoia. Group may direct threats toward specific individuals or institutional targets

* Maintain a primarily defensive philosophical posture. Plans for violent action are contingent upon perceived government provocation, but response plans are highly detailed and may include an escalation of overt acts beyond planning, such as testing explosive devices, gathering intelligence, and identifying/conducting surveillance of potential targets

* Engage in criminal activity, ranging from property crimes to crimes of interpersonal violence, e.g., resisting arrest, armed robberies, burglaries, and attempts to provoke confrontations with government officials.

Category IV Militia Groups

* Demonstrate many of the same traits and characteristics as category III groups but are likely to be smaller, more isolated cells or fringe groups whose members have grown frustrated with their peers' unwillingness to pursue a more aggressive strategy. Unlike militias in the other categories, category IV groups often maintain an openly offensive, rather than defensive, posture

* May grow out of other less threatening militia groups or may evolve independently from any other group associations

* Often attract individuals with frank mental disorders. These individuals may either act alone or with a small number of associates who share similar paranoid/disordered beliefs

* Plot and engage in serious criminal activity, e.g., homicide, bombings, and other acts of a terrorist nature.


The Militia Threat Assessment Typology was developed by Special Agent Alan C. Brantley and former Special Agent Gregory Cooper of the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group, Quantico, VA. The typology is based on the agents' experience and research into militia groups. For more information concerning the Militia Threat Assessment Typology, contact the authors at the FBI Academy, Quantico, VA 22135.

SA Duffy serves with the Critical Incident Response Group's Crisis Management Unit at the FBI Academy.

SA Brantley serves with the Profiling and Behavioral Assessment Unit at the FBI Academy.
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Author:Brantley, Alan C.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Previous Article:Police practice: teaching youths about the law.
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