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An Orange County sheriff’s deputy working at a protest is facing an internal investigation and has been placed on leave for wearing a patch with symbols that Sheriff Don Barnes’ office described as “associated with extremist groups.”

Images circulating online Wednesday showed a deputy wearing a patch with the symbols of two groups called Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.

Barnes launched an investigation and put out a public statement criticizing the deputy, who has not been publicly named.

“We are aware of photos and video regarding an Orange County Deputy Sheriff wearing patches on his uniform that are associated with extremist groups,” said the statement from Barnes’ office, issued around 1 p.m. Wednesday.

“This deputy’s decision to wear these patches, and the implication of his association with an extremist group, is unacceptable and deeply concerning to me,” Barnes was quoted as saying in the release.

[Click here to read the Sheriff’s Department’s news release.]

Later on Wednesday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Department said the deputy was placed on administrative leave pending the investigation’s outcome. Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the department, declined to identify the deputy, citing the investigation.

The Oath Keepers describe themselves as “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ ”

The Three Percenters group describes themselves as a national organization of Americans “committed to standing against and exposing corruption and injustice,” and says they are neither anti-government nor a militia.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes both as “extreme antigovernment groups,” calling Oath Keepers “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”

Video posted to Reddit on Tuesday night showed an OC deputy, while in uniform and a helmet in front of the Costa Mesa Police Department, wearing a patch with the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters symbols. He appeared to be on duty at a protest against police violence against Black people in the U.S. in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

“Any symbol can have multiple meanings and is open to interpretation, which is why wearing of non-approved symbols and patches is strictly prohibited,” Barnes added in his statement. “Instances like this can forge a wedge separating law enforcement from the community we serve, especially during these turbulent times.”

Criticism of the sheriff’s deputy incident spread on social media Wednesday, as thousands of residents continued to take to Orange County streets for the fifth day in a row to protest police violence against Black people.

“It is outrageous that a member of a law enforcement organization would be so brazen as to apparently wear a symbol of violence, discord and bigotry on his uniform, especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Greater Los Angeles Area office, before the sheriff’s department investigation was announced.

“We demand that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) investigate this incident, identify the officer and take appropriate action. We also call for the OCSD to formulate a clear policy against the display of such offensive material and to apologize for this lack of oversight.”

Social media users said earlier on Wednesday they reported the images to the Sheriff’s Department’s internal affairs division.

“OC Sheriff deputy at Costa Mesa CA protest forgoing name badge to wear a patch promoting far right, racist Three-Percenter militia group. Internal affairs…received complaints about the video & trying to identify him and locate his command,” wrote one Twitter user.

The video shows the deputy standing near other deputies while wearing the patch.

“These symbols are not department-approved and are prohibited by policy, and contradict the values of the Sheriff’s Department. First and foremost, thank you to the many members of the public who brought this to our attention,” the Sheriff’s Department said in its news release.

Juan Viramontes, who leads the sheriffs’ deputies union, said Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t yet seen the images but that the union agrees with the overall policy against wearing unauthorized symbols.

“I don’t know too much about the patch. I haven’t seen it. And we agree with the department over the [policy] covering unauthorized [symbols] worn on uniforms,” Viramontes said in the interview.

“At the same time, patches can have multiple [meanings] to different people…I don’t know what his intentions are or what the meanings of the patch is for him,” he added.

“To me, for my guys it’s important that [we] keep a professional appearance…We just want to make sure people understand why we’re there, and that’s to help everybody out.”

In its news release, the department said it is investigating the deputy and “re-briefed all employees regarding our uniform policy,” which prohibits the wearing of any symbols not on an approved list.

“A core mission of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is to provide public safety services free from prejudice or favor and to listen to the concerns of the community we serve.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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